Review: A Deeply Personal Exploration of Childhood Traumas in Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy

The premise is, admittedly, a bit strange: actor Shia LaBeouf wrote a screenplay based on his own experiences as a child actor (and later, in rehab) exploring his dysfunctional relationship with his father, and LaBeouf himself plays his own father. Imagine that pitch meeting…

And yet, it works. It works very, very well. Honey Boy, marking LaBeouf’s screenwriting debut, works in ways that will at least break your heart and, for the more introspective among us, leave you considering just how human our parents are, flawed and damaged and doing their damn best, even when that comes up devastatingly short.

Honey Boy
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

A multi-layered affair, Honey Boy exists in two timelines at once, sometimes weaving in flashbacks as well. There’s young Otis (Noah Jupe, a revelation—more on him in a bit), living in a seedy Los Angeles motel with his selfish, undependable, alcoholic father James (LaBeouf) and bringing home the bacon as a working child actor with a burgeoning career. His parents are long-since split, and in order to help him pursue his acting, his wayward father does the full-time parenting while his mother (Natasha Lyon, heard only on the phone) holds down a steady job and, from afar, hopes for the best. Then there’s grown-up Otis (Lucas Hedges, who also appears in Waves opening this week), still a working actor but also a complete mess of a person (hmmm, wonder how that happened?) who checks himself into rehab to finally get clean. As part of therapy within the program, Otis begins exploring his childhood as his family’s main breadwinner, his rocky relationship to his father and how it all conspired to fuck him up.

It’s part of the film’s origin story that LaBeouf did go to rehab and did write the script for Honey Boy while there; by the time he emerged, production details—including Alma Har’el on board to direct—were all in line and the rest, as they say, is history. Casting himself as James (names and, one assumes, some events have been fictionalized here) is a daring, even tumultuous choice, as close as he is to the subject matter. But ultimately, it proves a genius move, allowing for an authenticity that no other actor would’ve been able to muster. Also genius: Noah Jupe as a stand-in for LaBeouf himself as a child. Fourteen years old and already an established actor (roles in Ford v Ferrari, A Quiet Place and more to his name), Jupe has a screen presence that far exceeds his youth. Here, he balances the entirely appropriate vulnerability of childhood with the steely, take-no-shit demeanor he surely had to develop to survive. Watching him navigate the two, often in response to his father’s moods, will gut you and have you yearning to see someone just give the kid a hug.

Har’el, best known for her documentary work, shepherds LaBeouf’s story to the screen with a gentle touch, allowing the vivid characters to take centerstage in this sun-drenched drama. Perhaps its that fact-based filmmaking that keeps her from over-dramatizing moments that are inherently already quite intense. Scene after scene sees young Otis and James interacting in ways that are both troubled and troubling, blurring the lines of who’s the parent and who’s the child in a relationship that’s as unstable as it is inescapable. Otis finds refuge on the studio sets where he works, often the only places that are safe, reliable and functional; in an industry not known for its stability, this alone speaks volumes to Otis’s home life. Through it all, LaBeouf makes no attempt to excuse or even explain anyone’s behavior except, one gathers, to say that when circumstances are (far) less than ideal, we are capable of creating remarkable (if not always healthy) ways to cope.

I read somewhere once that everyone, regardless of background or circumstance, should (presuming they’re able) go to therapy by the time they’re 30, in order to work through whatever issues their parents inevitably instilled in them. The article argued (quite rightly, I think) that all the wounds and baggage of our childhood will surely creep up eventually, in our careers, our relationships, our everyday lives. That LaBeouf chose to create such a viscerally personal screenplay as a means of his own healing is, in the end, a gift to all of us trying to work through one thing or another.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone