Honey Boy

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Honey Boy
"This is a highly personal work that opens the door on some dark truths of Hollywood and fame, but it also doesn’t quite know what to do to elevate itself beyond a peep show into human misery." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Honey Boy is — by its creator’s account — a therapy session. The thing about therapy sessions is, if you’re listening in on someone else’s, you might feel a little dirty.

And you also might not connect as strongly as the person who’s actually engaged in the session. After all, therapy is about working through deep-seated issues and finding a new path to happiness. Telling that story to others is a completely different matter.

That’s not to say Honey Boy is tedious. Screenwriter/star Shia LaBeouf gives a magnetic performance as his abusive father (in all but name), and director Alma Har’el provides some dynamic visuals while giving the performance room to breath. This is a highly personal work that opens the door on some dark truths of Hollywood and fame, but it also doesn’t quite know what to do to elevate itself beyond a peep show into human misery.

The film alternates between two time periods. One follows 12-year-old actor Otis, played by Noah Jupe, as he deals with newfound fame and his manipulative and abusive father, James (LaBeouf). In the other time period years later, Lucas Hedges plays Otis as an adult whose recklessness and addictions have lead him to a rehab clinic, where he resists treatment, and anything else that might make him face the past.

LaBeouf first became known as a child star in the early 2000s for the TV show Even Stevens and the charming film Holes, and later starred in blockbusters like the Transformers series. He then started embracing more and more weirdness, including performance art, Lars Von Trier movies and a short film that he plagiarised from a Daniel Clowes' comic, then apologised for… except he also plagiarised the apology.

Otis isn’t quite LaBeouf — the film presents a caricature of a Hollywood career, complete with actions stunts and pie fights. Har’el draws clever visual parallels to the past and present film shoots in the opening scene.

As far as the true-story angle goes, the filmmakers seem to want it both ways. On one hand, the on-screen characters have different names than their real-life counterparts. On the other, the film ends with the quintessential biopic trope: pictures of the real people during the end credits. Plus, LaBeouf has been open about having written the screenplay while in rehab as part of his therapy, and that the process has made it so he’s able to speak to his father again.

LaBeouf manages to capture his father as a tragically sympathetic monster. A rodeo clown whose career never reached what he sees as its full potential, James now has to watch his son have more success at age 12 than he’s ever had. Yet he’s also determined to make sure that he profits from that success. The film is at its best when it revels in the character and lets him simmer in his contradictions and manipulations.

Unfortunately, Honey Boy doesn’t quite know how to add up its increasingly traumatic episodes into something meaningful. The rehab scenes with Hedges are surely meant to add context, but they feel rote and add little to the horrifying childhood material. LaBeouf succeeds in showing us all the bad shit that happened to him — which may have been all he really wanted to do — but perhaps he should have taken a bit more time to contemplate before filming it.

It’s tempting to look for meaning in Honey Boy’s failures. There’s a certain fatalistic tragedy in an exploited child actor milking his trauma for a work of self-exploitation. A more self-reflexive film might have used its dual timelines to explore these motivations. But even with Har’el acting as a more detached collaborator, LaBeouf can’t seem to reach a deeper understanding of his trauma — he’s just reliving it as a form of therapy. I hope it works out for him, and that he purged enough demons to move on to better things.

Reviewed on: 10 Sep 2019
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A child TV star and his ex-rodeo clown father face their stormy past through time and cinema.


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