Alma Har’el, best known for the 2011 documentary Bombay Beach with its intimate moments of beauty in a gritty story about life on the margins, must be credited for the searing, memory-soaked urgency of Honey Boy, her fiction directing debut. What could have been a maudlin melodrama about family dysfunction is instead, despite the heartbreaking and disturbing abusive father-son relationship at the center, a haunting and lyrical memory piece. Credit must also go to cinematographer Natasha Braier for the film’s rich, impressionistic look.
Working from a semi-autobiographical script by actor Shia LaBeouf who stars as James, a character based on LaBeouf’s own father, Har’el gets a gutsy performance from him in a role that feels like part therapy, part exorcism. As narcissistic and crude as James is, LaBeouf’s portrayal manages some empathy for James’s self-loathing and screwed up life.
For those interested in LaBeouf’s on and off screen persona, this deeply personal film will hold additional curiosities. Apart from that, it’s an impressive, neo-realist portrait of a successful child actor (Noah Jupe, terrific as LaBeouf’s stand-in) who lives with his father, a former rodeo clown, in a run down motel outside Los Angeles. A war vet who’s also a recovering addict and alcoholic, James is paid by his young son to serve as the boy’s chaperone on Hollywood sets. While Otis is affable, curious and well-liked, his dad is a scruffy, boorish, bullying presence. Back at the seedy motel, James coaches Otis in a manner that’s full of rancor and resentment, undermining Otis’s sweetness and youthful exuberance. Even the film’s title is a bitter little epithet James tosses at his eager-to-please son who’s hungry for his father’s attention and approval.
Har’el effectively cuts the scenes with Jupe with scenes of Lucas Hedges playing Otis as a 20-something film star. His unraveling life has again landed him in rehab. A counselor (Laura San Giacomo) pushes the angry young man to find the source of what she diagnoses as his PTSD. This seems to be how LaBeouf produced the Honey Boy script. As cathartic as it must have been for the actor to revisit and dramatize his trauma, the brutal honesty and occasional humor of exposing his own and his father’s demons, without tidy resolutions, shows no small amount of courage.