“My whole work requires and is motivated by trauma reminders!” Otis (Lucas Hedges) hisses at his therapist in the first act of Honey Boy. The names are different and some details were omitted, but the true nature of his real life trauma becomes readily apparent.
Shia LaBeouf wrote this screenplay during his 10 week court ordered stay in rehab/counselling after a DUI conviction. In therapy sessions, patients are often encouraged to do role play to seek a better understanding of their trauma and its source. LaBeouf takes this concept to the next level by playing a version of his own father named James. Noah Jupe plays 12 year old child actor Otis and A24 fixture Lucas Hedges plays the volatile 22 year old Otis. The entire narrative unfolds as if it were somebody’s turn to speak in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Any preconceived notions of this film being an ego-driven vanity project are swept away within the opening moments. Otis looks directly into the camera and utters the often lampooned LaBeouf line of “no…no..no..no.NO!” Suddenly he is blown through the air and a disembodied voice yells “Cut!” This is clearly a nod to his transformers films. This provides a certain meta-level sense of recognition in the audience perhaps designed to illicit a knowing grin. When this sequence repeats itself featuring a younger Otis, the symbolism becomes clear. In both instances, he is left dangling in the air suspended by cables as if he were a puppet under someone else’s control.
The narrative does not dwell too long on the specific events that led to his stint in rehab. LaBeouf and Har’el already know that anyone watching knows this part of the story and it is wisely condensed into a rapidly paced montage of self destruction, unbridled rage, and clashes with the law. With this unorthodox prologue finished, the real essence of the narrative begins. At the age of 12, Otis is a full fledged child actor with a television show and James functions as a paid chaperone. When he is not on set filming, much of the film is spent in a run down motel somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Natasha Braier’s cinematography captures the beauty of natural light during the day and the obtrusiveness of neon at night. The resulting dichotomy creates imagery that is often on the edge of realism while grounded in brutal reality.
Some of the most powerful moments between Otis and James occur in this cramped motel room and the tension is palpable. Here, father and son cycle through a traumatic kaleidoscope of ugly emotions. Shia LaBeouf doesn’t simply portray a version of his father as James; he summons him from the darkest recesses of his own rage. This becomes readily apparent as James loses more and more control and resorts to controlling how Otis perceives himself. Noah Jupe is heartbreaking as he portrays the precocious child actor who is experiencing the seeds of PTSD come into full bloom.
2019’s Honey Boy is one of the most confronting and cathartic films of the year. A good movie succeeds when an audience roots for the protagonist. In this case, many will find themselves suddenly rooting for Shia LaBeouf himself.