There are two very different ways one can look at “Honey Boy,” troubled actor Shia Labeouf’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up with a frustrated, alcoholic father and being scarred by the experience. One is to view it as a courageous attempt to exorcise his demons by confronting them dramatically. The other is that it’s an act of self-pity in which he’s offering excuses for his repeated bad conduct.
Of course, it might be a bit of both.
Labeouf’s screenplay is divided into two sections that alternate with each other. One features Lucas Hedges as the grown version of Otis Lort, Labeouf’s stand-in, who’s shown as a movie star making a big action flick heavy on special effects (recalling, perhaps, a “Transformers” installment). But Otis is a troubled young man, who’s shown having a fling with his co-star (Maika Monroe) before crashing his car while under the influence. That lands him in rehab, where his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) encourages him to record his painful memories in a journal.
That segues into the film’s second part, in which those memories are reenacted, with young Otis (Noah Jupe) living in a run-down hotel with his bitter, alcoholic ex-con father James (LaBeouf) is serving as his guardian while the boy stars in a TV series (think “Even Stevens”) and auditions for other roles. James is supposed to take care of the kid, but he’s constantly hitting on women, like a young prostitute (FKA Twigs) based at the place—but always getting spurned. He also spends his time on the set glad-handing the staff with off-color stories.
This flashback-centered material really provides the picture’s centerpiece, and LaBeouf acts up a storm in it. His interaction with his son morphs from quasi-affectionate to menacing, even abusive, at the drop of a hat: he’s clearly raging at the thought of being supported by the boy’s earnings, and over his own string of failures. He’s also irate at the thought that another man (Clifton Collins) has become a sort of surrogate father to Otis, and makes his displeasure known, when the opportunity arises, in decisive fashion.
LaBeouf certainly brings intensity to this character, though, it must be said, in a highly theatrical way. But the linchpin of this segment, and of “Honey Boy” (James’s nickname for Otis, presumably referring to the kid being his source of income) as a whole, is Jupe, who earns an extraordinary degree of sympathy as a twelve-year old dealing with the perks and problems of being a child actor while desperately trying to build a relationship with a father whose default emotion appears to be anger, and expresses it via harshness mitigated only by his drunken absences. There are episodes that don’t really work—the scenes shown from the TV series are almost surrealistically peculiar, and a brief encounter between Otis and the same hooker who’s rejected James stumbles. But Jupe handles even these moments with surprising skill.
By contrast Hedges—who has significantly less screen time—matches LaBeouf more than Jupe in his approach. He rages too, and effectively enough, but it’s a one-note performance that features much less nuance than the actor is capable of—a function of the character of older Otis as written.
That’s the result of the psychological underpinnings of the screenplay, which frankly don’t have much nuance either. It’s simply a case of an unhappy childhood leading to a troubled adulthood, an explanation that of course carries a basic ring of truth but is portrayed here in fairly simplistic terms—as one might expect, coming from the victim.
Perhaps to conceal the basic lack of depth in this respect, director Alma Har’el glitzes up the film with hectic pacing and lurid colors (the production design is by JC Molina, the costumes by Natalie O’Brien, the cinematography by Natasha Braier, and the editing by Monica Salazar and Dominic Laperriere).
The result is a film that pulsates with vibrancy, though perhaps not always with truth. That’s not saying that LaBeouf was moved by anything but honesty in writing—and making—“Honey Boy.” But confessionals are told from a single perspective, and do not always convey the layers and ambiguities of real life. The film undoubtedly expresses the way in which LaBeouf sees himself at the present stage of his self-examination and explains what he perceives as the roots of his well-publicized bad behavior. But he may gain deeper understanding of himself and others as time goes on.
Despite its many virtues, therefore, “Honey Boy” merits only a mixed response.