The actor and artist brings his demons to the screen in a film about a child star and his alcoholic dad (played by Shia himself)
To those who grew up in the late 90s and early 00s, the name Shia LaBeouf conjures up the wacky Hawaiian shirts of Disney mainstay Even Stevens, or perhaps the orange jumpsuit he donned as Stanley "Caveman" Yelnats in 2003 comedy-drama Holes. Long before he was making performance art, or filming sex scenes for Lars Von Trier, he was best known as the spunky Disney kid who got into all sorts of slapstick hijinks. In his screenwriting debut, LaBeouf exercises some personal demons, and reckons candidly with his past and present, creating a tender family portrait in the process.
Drawing on LaBeouf’s own experiences as a child star and the son of an alcoholic, Honey Boy is an intimate insight into LaBeouf’s upbringing, but more broadly, serves as a heartbreaking examination of father-son relationships, and the accelerated adulthood many children of addicts endure. Directed by Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har'el – a close friend of LaBeouf – the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at the end of January to rave reviews, but the writing process began back when Shia attended rehab for his alcoholism and PTSD.
Speaking at the film’s premiere, Shia admitted his own reticence to turn his experience into a film: “This whole thing felt very selfish. I never went into this thinking, 'Oh, I am going to fucking help people.' That wasn't my goal. I was falling apart." There’s evidence of this agony right there on the screen. Switching between 2005 and 1995, the film follows Otis Lort, star of a children’s television show, who lives with his unstable father James. Their relationship is strained by James’s alcoholism and frequent violent outbursts, but there are tender moments between the pair too, and that’s where the true heartbreak lies – the intersection of James and Otis’s close relationship, undermined by addiction and abuse.
“In a climate where men still feel unable to address their emotions and many suffer with years of trauma in silence, it’s brave that LaBeouf has chosen to tackle his own pain in such a format”
The role of Otis at 22 is played by Lucas Hedges, while Noah Jupe plays him at 12 years old, giving a mesmerising performance that feels profound and skillful beyond his years. (The film also features an appearance from FKA twigs.) While Hedges’s version of Otis explodes with the pain and anger that he’s been carrying around for two decades, Jupe’s interpretation still brims with hope that his father might finally clean up his act. Meanwhile, Shia himself gives the performance of his career as James Lort, who is more interested in being his son’s friend than his father, and wrestles with the lure of drinking as well as his own deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.
As an act of memoir, the film is fascinating to behold – it feels strikingly personal and intimate, as though you’re seeing the pages of a journal reimagined for the screen. But the pain is never played exploited. With Har’el at the helm, it feels dream-like and hazy, an aesthetic rendering of memory’s fluidity, while also examining the ways in which trauma can occupy a strange space in our minds. The adult Otis, addressing his therapist, says of his father, “The only thing of any value he gave me was pain, and you want to take it away?” Anyone who’s ever carried a similar wound with them might recognise the way in which it becomes a comfort – something you can cling to, and even weaponise yourself.
Honey Boy feels like a turning point in LaBeouf’s career, and his public exploration of private grief is so deeply relatable, it transcends being purely an act of memoir. In a climate where men still feel unable to address their emotions and many suffer with years of trauma in silence, it’s brave that LaBeouf has chosen to tackle his own pain in such a format. In the film’s honest, upsetting depiction of addiction and familial fracture, a small glimmer of hope shines through; Honey Boy is about the agony and ecstasy of growing up, and making it out alive on the other side.