It’s no secret that our traumas define us. They shape our decisions, relationships, and how we see the world. What doesn’t get shared often enough, though, is an articulation of personal trauma through our own acting. In many ways, Honey Boy uniquely tackles this concept with one of the mostly deeply personal performances (and screenplays) in recent memory.
Sure, we get all kinds of personal screenplays, but it’s not all that often an actor writes and performs in a film about them. And that’s what we get with Shia LaBeouf’s practically impeccable , virtually therapeutic role as his own father in this new film from director Alma Har’el (11/8/16). Suddenly the “Shia as Orson Welles” internet jokes feel a bit too on the nose.
If you’ve followed LaBeouf’s career since his early sitcom days on the Disney Channel, you’ll immediately recognize the trajectory of Otis—who’s been an actor all his life—played in a dual role by Lucas Hedges (his older, Transformers action star persona) and Noah Jupe (think Even Stevens, down to the wardrobe). Both characters grapple with the pain brought on by a tumultuous relationship with their father, James (LaBeouf), an angry and abusive former felon who nonetheless serves as Otis’s chaperone for his latest shoot.
The film jumps back and forth between Otis’s formative-yet-chaotic childhood and emotionally unrestrained present. He’s still a successful actor, but his boiling pain controls his every behavior, which is realized through an early montage that displays the mental breakdowns and confusions between acting and real life. It’s almost a bit too simplistic for a film to address as broad a question as “tell me about your childhood,” but LaBeouf sells the concept by investing his full self in more ways than one. At times, it feels somewhat unethical to be spying on someone’s actual therapy sessions, but at least the film serves as a fair warning signal against ever putting kids through the Hollywood machine.
Honey Boy is the culmination of a decade that has without question been uncertain for LaBeouf, as well as his aging fans. It’s easy to see why his paternal performance is this genuine, raw, and unflinching. Undoubtedly, this is Shia LaBeouf’s greatest hour, period, because he controls his story and how it’s told. Har’el makes sure the vision stays coherent, of course, always guiding us along a difficult journey that looser hands may have dropped. Her experience with documentary work probably served as a surprise advantage when helping weave LaBeouf’s script into a coherent display of affection for youth and problematic parenthood, similar to Sean Baker’s The Florida Project.
It’s no small thing to admit that we’ve probably misjudged LaBeouf at some point over the years, but make no mistake. He’s never left the conversation or given reason to doubt his capacity to attract attention. If Honey Boy is a turning point in his career (one already dotted with great work), I’m certainly curious to see what the next chapter entails, because I’m not even sure LaBeouf himself knows. With Honey Boy, he’s given the audience permission to reflect with him and empathize with his mistakes by giving audiences a small piece of where he really comes from and how these vignettes have shaped a fairly public life. Using a film to make yourself known in this way is about as fitting as it gets in the world of Hollywood.