“Honey Boy” is better than a movie written as an actor’s therapy project has any right to be.
When I say that actor is Shia LaBeouf, you may be inclined to snort and walk away even faster. But hold on. There are some of us who think LaBeouf’s antics of the past few years – giving interviews with a paper bag over his head, live-streaming a public screening marathon of his body of work, inviting audiences to ride an elevator with him for 24 hours – constitute a pretty good conceptual art prank on the absurdities of fame. Less so his various arrests for drunkenness and public disturbance, the plagiarism, the stints in drug rehab, etc. So, yeah, why should you give 93 minutes of your life to a movie in which Shia LaBeouf plays his own father?
Because there are some truths here, and you take truths where you find them. “Honey Boy” is a movie split in two, one half focusing on a 12-year-old child actor named Otis (Noah Jupe), the other on 20-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges) in rehab and at the end of his tether. The film cuts between the two as if shuffling a deck of cards and willing them to fall in order.
The young Otis gets gigs on Nickelodeon-style TV shows – we see him getting a pie in the face – and then goes back to the seedy motel where he lives with his dad, James (LaBeouf). The latter is an alcoholic former circus clown and full-time screw-up who has placed his hopes on his son and won’t let him forget it. LaBeouf plays his old man with a receding hairline and pony tail, a mean down-home drawl, and a gift of gab that doesn’t fool anyone. It’s a fully realized portrait – you can see right through the damage James is doing to the damage done to him.
Jupe is very good as the son, watching warily for the next eruption while starting to explore a larger world: cigarettes, rebellion, a shy flirtation with the young prostitute across the way (the British singer FKA Twigs in an underwritten part). Otis is a pint-sized professional, and you sense the scripts, or “sides,” or scripts, he’s always studying are his closest thing to normal. Jupe is a rising young talent – he’s Christian Bale’s son in the current “Ford v Ferrari” – and this movie puts a complex load on his sturdy shoulders.
If you’ve seen Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea” or “Ben Is Back,” you’ll be prepared for the acrid edge of his performance as the older Otis (as opposed to the gentleness of the boyfriend Hedges plays in the current “Waves”). As an actor, Otis knows how to game a group-therapy session, but in one-on-ones with a counselor (Laura San Giacomo), he struggles to simultaneously defend and defy the father looming up in his head. “My dad’s not the reason I drink,” he tells her. “My dad’s the reason I work.” But he also says, “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value was pain. And you want to take that away?”
The trick of a movie like this is to ensure it speaks to an audience outside its creator’s trauma. The direction by the Israeli filmmaker Alma Har’el goes a long way to making “Honey Boy” watchable, bearable, relatable. Poetic, even. Certainly it should resonate with anyone who’s tried to form themselves in the shadow of a difficult or abusive parent. The film pretty much falls off the map in the final ten minutes, its themes and emotions blurring together in a quest for resolution. But movies have to end somehow, and life stumbles on. For his sake, I hope LaBeouf has figured that out by now.
Directed by Alma Har’el. Written by Shia LaBeouf. Starring LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe. At Kendall Square. 94 minutes. R (pervasive language, some sexual material, drug use).