Honey Boy is two fantastic things at once. Firstly, it is documentarian Alma Har’el’s first narrative feature. Secondly — yet no less importantly — it is Shia LaBeouf’s screenwriting debut. His screenplay is a soul-baring, vest-shedding (we’ll get to that later), confessional work that stands boldly as an autobiographical rehabilitation effort whose merit is not found in pity owed to its subject but in its electrifying performances, smooth direction, and a contemplative vision, which looks far beyond itself. As the wise St. Vincent tweeted last week, “Making art about important things doesn’t make it important art.”
The film weaves in and out of two periods of The Beef’s life: his troubled childhood as a growing TV sitcom sensation with a jealous alcoholic father in 1995, and his troubled young adulthood as an A-list movie star getting plastered on and off-set until he lands in court-ordered rehab in 2005. A quick note: names and dates have been changed. Instead of Shia, we have Otis Lort who in his preteen years is played by Noah Jupe and in his rehab years is played by Lucas Hedges. Otis is 12 in 1995, 22 in 2005. Shia was born in 1986, so if we do the math we can assume everything is just pushed back a few years in the film.
Alright, so here’s the kicker if you haven’t already heard. LaBeouf is in the film and he plays his own father. That’s right. The Beef is Mr. The Beef, a.k.a. James Lort, a David Foster Wallace look-a-like adorned with wire-rimmed glasses and the trademark bandanna wrapped around his head. And, my god, he is a revelation. If I believed even the tiniest bit in the Academy Awards to consistently award great films and bold standout performances, I would tell you to go all in on LaBeouf in February 2020. But who would I be kidding? Ethan Hawke didn’t even get nominated for First Reformed, yeesh. In this scenario, I imagine the Academy would be much like everyone’s token artistically blind friend whose post-movie commentary on every non-blockbuster reaches its full potential at “that was weird.”
How do you play your own father when you haven’t spoken to him in six or seven years? How do you act as your dad when he treated you poorly, hit you, fed you cigarettes as a tween, and hung you out to dry time and time again? I didn’t have a father like that, so I don’t know, but my first guess would be “cruelly” or “with ridicule” at the very least. If anything, I would think that the film is rehabilitative in that it gives LaBeouf the chance to lash out at his father in front of 2,500 international people on the biggest stage at one of the biggest festivals in the world And eventually across the world once it’s distributed.
This was an opportunity for LaBeouf to justify his drug and alcohol abuse in front of everyone. It was a chance for him to blame everything on his father, prove that he had conquered his adversity, and celebrate his own recovery. But he didn’t use his platform to do any of those things. What makes Honey Boy remarkable is LaBeouf’s insistence on wrestling with the text of his own life without offering easy answers, worshiping himself, or dismissing his father as a pure antagonist.
The film opens with Otis strapped into a stunt harness on the set of a big-budget action picture (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen if you parallel the film to LaBeouf’s actual timeline). He screams in desperation before he’s yanked back in a faux-explosion and we realize he’s only acting. Soon, he’s in his trailer trying to get the god-forsaken thing off. He drinks, tries again, drinks some more, punches shit, takes another drink, and before we know it, we’re launched into a whirlwind of a montage edited briskly so as to blur the lines between on-set performances and disastrous off-set coping mechanisms. It all comes to a shattering stop in a car wreck with an accentuated broken and bloodied hand (as per real life).
No matter how much he drinks, hooks up with his co-stars, or self-destructs in other ways, he can’t seem to get the stunt vest off. And neither can his younger self, who we meet wearing a similar vest on the set of a TV show where his father schmoozes with women on the production staff. No matter how many times he asks his dad to help him take the vest off, he can’t get his attention. And when Mr. Lort finally helps Otis out of his periphery, he hurts him instead and tells him to bug off. The film quickly communicates that it is about needing help, among other things. No one can take those suffocatingly tight full body harnesses off alone. No one can simply overcome a childhood spent alongside an abusive father without guidance. No one can kick a running biological tradition of alcoholism without communal accountability. We all need help.
Older Otis’s timeline takes place almost exclusively in a rehab center where he is fueled with a rage that he takes out on the staff and their hopeful rehabilitative methods. However, it’s clear that the rage is sourced in the past with his father. For every few scenes we get with younger Otis and James, we get one with older Otis, pacing, constantly fuming, screaming at everyone around him, always too cool for whatever is going on. He is simultaneously self-aware and totally incapable of making responsible decisions, at one point identifying himself as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” (remember, LaBeouf wrote this about himself at a very recent rehab experience).
In 1995, younger Otis lives in a motel with dad. He is light-hearted, relatively understanding, hard-working, and tired. He just wants his father to act like a father instead of a bro-esque dude who “care[s] too much about pussy” to pick his son up from an acting job that pays his bills. Yes, his 12-year-old son is his boss and he is humiliated by it. He is an ex-clown who is furiously jealous of the comedic career that he was never able to lock down. But, as far as the film informs us, he does not just get drunk and beat his son (like his father did to him). His abuse is more mental and emotional (though occasionally and devastatingly physical).
When we meet Mr. Lort, he is three years sober, regularly attending AA, and trying to bond with Otis on the level of an equal. However, most of it is in poor taste. In time spent with older Otis, we learn that his father’s AA stories probably aren’t even his own. He’s a liar, a womanizer, a loser. He keeps his son stocked with a full pack of cigarettes, tells him crude jokes, curses like a sailor, talks wildly about women (reflected in a boob-centric Robert Crumb tee), and ditches home unannounced regularly, much to Otis’s disappointment and confusion. He runs lines with Otis as commonly as he makes him act out arguments with his mother over the phone when he refuses to talk to her (perhaps suggesting that this was LaBeouf’s fucked up introduction to his profession).
This grasps at one of the film’s major themes, which reaches so far beyond the film itself: acting. Between younger and older Otis, there is so much deliberation about the process of acting, the way acting trickles into real life, whether any of us are ever not acting, etc. If it weren’t for overarching conversations about acting and rehabilitation, maybe this would be a self-obsessed film, albeit still wonderfully performed.
The film has a throughline of meta-text that addresses his father sweetly. Despite the shitty person we often see on screen, there is a kind person portrayed in the midst. LaBeouf does not condemn his father; rather, he extends an open hand to join him in rehabilitation. LaBeouf’s screenplay is full of forgiveness and hope. He still wants that dad who acts like a dad, but he seems more open to being in a relationship with him in less conventional ways now. Honey Boy is not self-centered because it extends the same hand to everyone who encounters it. It recognizes everyone’s need for rehabilitation in some sense and asks us tenderly to jump in.