Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.
“You know, a seed has to totally destroy itself to become a flower. That’s a violent act, honey boy.”
I had been longing to watch “Honey Boy” ever since November when I first watched its trailer, which looked so intriguing, featuring scenes and performances that immediately stood out to me. I got even more excited to watch it when I found out that Shia LaBeouf wrote the screenplay while he was in rehab, partially drawing from his personal experience growing up as a young actor.
Although it was influenced by LaBeouf’s life, “Honey Boy” is not an autobiographical film. The movie follows the story of Otis Lort through two main life periods: when he is 12 years old (played by Noah Jupe) and when he is 22 (played by Lucas Hedges).
At the age of 22, Otis stars in action movies -- there is a scene where Otis seems to be shooting a Transformers-like scene, featuring stunts, explosions and him yelling “No, no, no, no, no,” a characteristic line of LaBeouf when acting in the “Transformers” movies that made him a star. Otis also struggles with alcoholism. A car crash involving his female co-star leads him to a rehab center where he gets diagnosed with PTSD. “From what?” Otis asks. This question takes us to Otis’ childhood as we witness his toxic relationship with his abusive father.
At the age of 12, Otis is a young Hollywood actor rising to fame as he stars on a television sitcom. While Otis plays parts big enough that young girls recognize him on the street, he and his father James live together at a shabby extended-stay motel in Los Angeles.
James is an ex-rodeo clown, sex offender and recovering alcoholic, with quite unpredictable behavior. One minute he cheers his “honey boy” as they play games and crack jokes. The next minute he undermines Otis’ success because of his own thwarted ambitions. Even though Otis is aware of his father’s childish and detrimental behavior, even though he knows that “[his father] wouldn't be [there] if [Otis] didn't pay [him],” Otis still seeks his father’s affection and love, trying to make him proud. In reality, they both seek each other’s approval.
Besides writing the screenplay, LaBeouf plays Otis’ father James, a representation of LaBeouf’s own father. His performance is outstanding and completely different from anything we’ve seen from him before. At times, I would even forget it was LaBeouf acting as James. Making the decision to play a version of his own father, of stepping into the shoes of the person who caused LaBeouf’s own PTSD, is extremely courageous and the approach he chooses to portray James is equally praiseworthy.
LaBeouf delves into his father’s vulnerabilities and demons, reliving the emotional abuse he endured by acting as the perpetrator. Yet he and director Alma Har’el restrain from making James look like a total monster. With tenderness and empathy, they capture James’ humanity, the addictions that cost him his effort to become a better person and father, and the suffering and insecurities behind his behavior.
Their approach doesn’t indicate LaBeouf’s forgiveness of James’ behavior -- perhaps there is still resentment. But LaBeouf is in the right direction of understanding his father and laying that grudge down.
I hope that this process has been therapeutic rather than damaging for LaBeouf and that playing a version of his own father will prevent him from turning into that same kind of person in real life.
Noah Jupe’s performance is astonishing. It is moving and powerful, gracefully portraying the coexistence of both Otis’ innocence as a 12-year-old boy and his emotional maturity as adult problems are placed upon him. Acting-wise, there is a very fine line between capturing Otis’ childhood innocence and the emotional maturity he is called to reach too soon, but Jupe walks that fine line with a perfect balance.
Another promising young actor, Lucas Hedges perfectly embodies Otis’ years of damage and neglect in his monologues and outbursts of anger and pain toward the rehab center’s counselors as he struggles to cope with trauma.
Having been a kid who was obsessed with the “Transformers” movies ever since the first one came out in 2007, I have followed LaBeouf since the early stages of his career and I couldn’t be happier for his strong comeback now.
LaBeouf has poured words and memories from a dark and haunting, yet honest, place into his screenplay for “Honey Boy.” This authenticity makes “Honey Boy” feel universal, as it dives into issues like family toxicity, abuse, addiction, mental health and recovery. These are issues that many people experience daily, whether visible or not, but not many filmmakers and storytellers demonstrate LaBeouf’s and Har’el’s combination of honesty, bravery and sensitivity when attempting to capture them on the big screen.
With her compelling direction, Har’el gives flesh and blood to LaBeouf’s screenplay, capturing as the heartbreaking experience of Otis’ emotional abuse, and the absence of love and affection from his father, plays out against the background of dreamy Los Angeles sunsets and Hollywood movie sets.
One of LaBeouf’s takeaways from his personal experience dealing with trauma seems to be that the pain that he has felt has shaped a part of who he is now. Therefore, he learned to value that pain.
As shown in the movie, recovery isn’t a destination. It’s a journey, a day-by-day healing process. Making this movie and showing that level of vulnerability have been parts of LaBeouf’s healing process as he tries to find peace and embrace his scars.
LaBeouf did not make this movie to make us feel pity about how he grew up or to defend himself for his often negative publicity. Besides, by capturing 22-year-old Otis’ bratty Hollywood behavior, LaBeouf doesn’t let himself off the hook.
LaBeouf claimed he did not decide to make this movie to help other people. I think “Honey Boy” will not give answers but it will give hope to many people going through such a journey of trauma and recovery and will inspire some meaningful and genuine storytelling on the big screen and in our everyday lives.
“Honey Boy” is now available to watch for free on Amazon Prime Video if you have an Amazon Prime account.
IMDb rating: 7.4/10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 93% (critic), 92% (audience)
My personal rating: 8/10
Contact contributor Myrsini Manou-Georgila at firstname.lastname@example.org.