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Honey Boy
★★★☆☆
First run Screening room

I’ve never been a fan of Shia LaBeouf, the former Disney Channel kid who went on to stardom in Disturbia (2007), Transformers (2007), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—where his performances as Indi and Marion’s son “Mutt” was one of the more regretful aspects of that ill-advised project. But with Honey Boy, his autobiographical début as a screenwriter, LaBeouf makes a strong case for himself as a mature actor and an introspective writer. The movie is a showbiz memoir about LaBeouf’s life as a working child performer living with his aggressive, unstable, alcoholic father in a skid-row motel complex, and overcoming the PTSD infected upon him during his youth. The fact that LaBeouf plays the father in this picture, and that he wrote it as a form of therapy during his own stint in rehab, might seem like the makings of an embarrassingly maudlin, self-aggrandizing, or self-pitying vanity project. But LaBeouf wisely doesn’t take the fatal additional step of also directing this picture. He hands the reigns to music video and documentary filmmaker, Alma Har'el (Bombay Beach), making her narrative feature début.

Two fine actors play Otis Lort, the fictionalized version of LaBeouf. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the SeaLady BirdBoy Erased) plays him at age twenty-two, when his substance abuse and erratic behavior have landed him in criminally mandated rehab, and Noah Jupe (SuburbiconA Quiet PlaceFord V Ferrari) portrays him at age twelve attempting to navigate life with his dad, a former rodeo clown and registered sex-offender who acts as the kid’s manager. As the father, James Lort, LaBeouf never overplays the violence or milks the emotional threat of the character. He makes clear that it is the inconsistency of word and deed, and the inability to see beyond his own pain and selfish needs, that make this man such a terrible parent. Clifton Collins Jr. has a terrific small roll as a stable surrogate father to Otis from the Big Brothers program who James is so threatened by its almost heartbreaking.

The picture feels both authentic and dream-like; an insightful story about the horrors of what happens to kids forced to become the breadwinners of their families, and a redemptive work of forgiveness of LaBeouf (for his father and himself). Not all of it works equally well. Dialogue like, “The only thing my father ever gave me of any value is pain, and now you want to take that away?” are painfully on-the-nose. Whereas a sequence in which the young Otis must “perform” both sides of an argument between his parents for each of them, because they refuse to speak to each other on the phone, is one of the best scenes of the year. 

All in all, the uniqueness of the picture makes it well worth checking out. Everyone in the cast is riveting—from Laura San Giacomo (sex. lies and videotape, Pretty Woman, and TV’s Just Shoot Me!) playing Otis’ counsellor at the rehab centre, to FKA Twigs (the British avant-garde pop star-making her film acting début). Cinematographer Natasha Braier again demonstrates her flair for capturing a distinctive look of a lived-in environment from the protagonist’s perspective—as she did in both The Neon Demon and Gloria Bell—And Har'el establishes herself as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Most of all, the film gives one an appreciation for LaBeouf, whose movies I will seek out from this point on. 

Twitter Capsule:
LaBeouf's surprisingly affecting autobiographical exploration of his youth as a child star surviving his abusive father. With him playing his own dad, this should be a disaster. But Har'el and her excellent cast make it all work.

Directed by Alma Har'el
Produced by Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Chris Leggett, Anita Gou, and Alma Har'el

Written by Shia LaBeouf

With: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Byron Bowers, Laura San Giacomo, FKA Twigs, Natasha Lyonne, Maika Monroe, Clifton Collins Jr., Mario Ponce, and Martin Starr

Cinematography: Natasha Braier
Editing: Dominic LaPerriere and Monica Salazar
Music: Alex Somers

Runtime: 94 min
Release Date: 27 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color