Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Shia LaBeouf has made some questionable personal life decisions regarding drug and alcohol abuse, and he’s been very open about his path to recovery. He’s slowly crept back into audiences good graces with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” and last year's terrific “Borg vs McEnroe.” There’s no question he turns in another solid performance in his autobiographical “Honey Boy” - which he wrote the screenplay for - but the film ends up lacking a sense of urgency and plays more like a therapy session made for an audience of about two.
I’m sure this is a film LaBeouf felt like he needed to make, and I give the actor credit for taking the risk, but it’s hard for me to fully understand why the audience is involved here. I felt like an outsider who had slowly been let into this crazy lifestyle, and watching a movie based on LaBeouf’s childhood, which features himself playing his own father, is an interesting hook, but take his status away from the picture and you’re left with another generic drama that’s hard to root for.
Helmed by Aima Har’el, “Honey Boy” opens with an adult Shia LaBeouf played by Lucas Hedges - named Otis for some odd reason - filming what I’d presume is a stunt for a “Transformers” picture. We are then privy to a montage of LaBeouf’s drinking and drug habits before he ends up arrested and tossed into rehab.
Instead of exploring that arch and giving Hedges some more screen time, he decides to explore his father and transition back to 1995 during his child actor days. In steps 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe from “A Quiet Place” who is fantastic) as he is climbing the ranks of childhood stardom. He goes home every day from the glamour of pampering Hollywood to a trailer park with his dad (LaBeouf) who clearly has his fair share of issues. He’s a self-proclaimed drug and alcohol addict in recovery hired on as Otis’ manager because his record (which includes being a registered sex offender) severely limits his marketability. He is prone to violent outbursts and to knock his son around from time to time.
It won’t take long to notice the toxicity in this relationship, and how Otis’ father figure contributed to the poor decisions and triggering PTSD all those years later. Yet, LaBeouf’s script almost runs circles around itself and you wonder if “Honey Boy” will stop trying to move ahead so quickly and simmer down and peel the layers of LaBeouf’s own past livelihood.
Instead, he has to star in a movie, about himself, playing his father. It’s all rather strange and didn’t resonant with me as much as I wanted it too. Every so often the film will jump to the present where Hedges’ adult Otis is struggling in rehab, or venting his frustrations to his therapist. They’re strong scenes that more or less fail to leave a lasting impression, because LaBeouf doesn’t let them linger.
LaBeouf and Jupe have an energy, with Jupe in particular defying all expectations during a heartbreaking scene where he plays both his parents in real time during an emotional fight. He’s on the phone with his mother, whom we never see, but he channels an anguished woman as his father towers over him, screaming obscenities, to which Otis delivers his father's side of the conversation even though he’s clearly audible. It’s the best scene in “Honey Boy” because it tries to show us little Jupe’s worldview and that element is beyond compelling. But the stuff with adult Otis sifting through his origin feels like a cheat, as the film awkwardly cuts between two emotional arcs that, more or less, come up short.
Amazon Studios will release “Honey Boy” on November 8th 2019, and the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.