Part coming-of-age drama, part father-son story, and part therapy, “Honey Boy” is a compelling take on actor Shia LaBeouf’s troubled childhood and controversial behavior as a Hollywood star. Working from LaBeouf’s own script, director Alma Har’el builds sympathy for both LaBeouf and his father without excusing either for their actions.
The film fictionalizes elements of LaBeouf’s story — here, the young actor who finds himself in the limelight is named Otis (played by Noan Jupe as a child), and his sometimes-loving, sometimes-abusive, always unpredictable father (played by LaBeouf) is named James, rather than Jeff. But the core elements are true to LaBeouf’s life, including the framing story of an older Otis (Lucas Hedges) landing in rehab after public misbehavior and learning how to deal with the fallout from his childhood.
Jeff, a traumatized Vietnam veteran, is undeniably proud of his son, but he’s also on a hair trigger, which he’s all too likely to set off with a round of drinking or drug use, despite his attendance at AA meetings. Otis has a front-row seat to all of this and is often the target of his dad’s paranoia and anger. Jupe and LaBeouf infuse their scenes together with believable tension and drama; father and son care for each other deeply, but they don’t know how to have a “regular” relationship.
Shot in a style that often feels dreamlike (or nightmarish, depending on the scene), “Honey Boy” evokes a powerful emotional response as young Otis and Jeff navigate their life together — and as older Otis tries to make sense of how his life spiraled out of his control. Har’el elicits deeply felt performances from her stars, and you’ll come away from the film with renewed empathy and respect for an actor who had been dismissed by many as a punchline. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King 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. Read full review.
Nikki Baughan: Written by actor Shia LaBeouf while he was in rehab, Honey Boy is a searing, intimate exploration of the devastation that can be wrought by dysfunctional relationships. As well as turning in a deeply personal yet balanced screenplay, LaBeouf puts in another truly impressive performance as former clown and recovering alcoholic James Lort – a character based on his own father – whose attempts to parent his young actor son Otis are continually besieged by his deep-seated demons of addiction, jealousy and painful memories of his own childhood. As the 12-year-old Otis, Noah Jupe is endearing and desperately moving, his childhood innocence being chipped away by his father’s behavior. It’s when Otis is an adult (now played by an exceptional Lucas Hedges) that we really see the impact of these experiences; back in rehab for a third time, he is finally forced to confront the painful trauma of his past. Alongside the performances, the film’s sensitive, nuanced direction really hits home. Filmmaker Alma Ha’rel brings an assured restraint to the story, mining her own documentary background to ensure this tale unfolds without histrionics, that the fraught emotions on display never overwhelm LaBeouf’s story. There’s a visceral sense of sympathy, respect and warmth woven into Honey Boy which, despite the heartbreak it lays bare, proves ultimately to be a celebration of human resilience and our never-ending power to heal.
MaryAnn Johanson I thought I wasn’t up for yet another movie about a sad man and his broken father and the fractured relationship between them, but I was wrong. Because this one is directed by a woman, and it makes all the difference. Alma Ha’rel brings a stunning intimacy to father-son dynamics we’ve seen all too often onscreen before, an honesty and a generosity that brings a fresh, raw power to familiar themes. She also renders screenwriter (and star) Shia LeBeouf’s semifictionalization of his own life — as a child star shepherded by his abusive yet paradoxically simultaneously loving father, and his coming to terms with his fucked-up-ness as an adult — one of the more damning indictments of how the industry, and the audience, takes advantage of damaged people. We are very happy, as viewers, to enjoy performances by artists who draw upon their own pain, and yet rarely are we understanding or forgiving of the demons that fuel the work. This is a very effective plea for both.
Leslie Combemale Just because someone is a raging narcissist, doesn’t mean they don’t have talent and something to say. This is particularly true in Hollywood, and of many child actors, who are more likely to have a skewed childhood raised by dysfunctional parents surrounded by sycophants. Honey Boy mines this truth from a place of such authenticity it’s painful to watch, not least because co-star Shia LaBeouf, who also wrote the screenplay based on his childhood, plays his own father in the film. Director Alma Har’el draws magnetic performances from LaBeouf, as well as Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, who share duties playing Shia as a child and out-of-control adult, respectively. Viewers with dark memories of dysfunction from their youth, whether fame was a part of it or not, will recognize something from this heartbreaking, raw feature, which reaffirms LaBeouf as a multi-talented artist, and Lucas Hedges as an A-list actor who always bases his performances in absolute truth.
Pam Grady: Shia LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el find transcendence in LaBeouf’s personal struggles in this deeply empathetic autobiographical drama that started out as a therapist-suggested writing exercise for LaBeouf while he was in court-ordered rehab. The actor plays James Lort, a character based on his own father, an alcoholic veteran and clown who has become the manager of his young son Otis’ burgeoning acting career. Noah Jupe is Otis at 12, shouldered with adult responsibility and witness to his father’s schemes, explosions, and other bad behavior. Lucas Hedges is Otis at 22, on the surface a successful movie star, but prey to his dad’s same demons, bursting out in an event that leads to his arrest. This case of art imitating life reveals LaBeouf as a sensitive writer with an ear for dialogue and a knack for truthful detail. Award-winning documentarian Har’el’s narrative feature debut breathes vivid life into LaBeouf’s screenplay with shimmering cinematography, a resonant sense of place, and the three powerful performances at its center. What is most impressive about Honey Boy for both writer and director is the open-hearted feelings that course through it. In many ways, LaBeouf’s dysfunctional childhood was the stuff of nightmares thanks to his troubled parent, but the overriding emotions of the film are not anger, disappointment, or bitterness but love, understanding, and forgiveness. It is a tremendous achievement.
Susan Wloszczyna: In Honey Boy, Shia LeBeouf takes ownership of his own screwed-up childhood back when he starred on a Disney Channel series and splashes it on the big screen in a form of performance therapy. This biographical shrink session, based on a script he wrote as part of his rehab, is a far cry from his Transformers sci-fi blockbusters that get a skewering in the opening moments. On top of that, he makes matters even more interesting by playing his own shiftless, unstable and self-absorbed abusive father – probably the most honest acting he will ever achieve as he attempts to shoo away the demons that haunt him. Read full review.
Sheila Roberts Shia LaBeouf delves into the darkest recesses of his soul in Amazon’s riveting Honey Boy based on his autobiographical screenplay about a young actor’s tumultuous childhood and early adult years as he attempts to reconcile his love for his alcoholic father with his pain. Honey Boy is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s transcendent cinema told with authenticity and brutal honesty. This is a beautifully crafted film, and the impressive work by director Alma Har’el, the ensemble and DP Natasha Braier make them worthy contenders for consideration this awards season. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Alma Har’el’s collaboration with actor-screenwriter Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical drama is powerful and vulnerable. The movie, in which LaBeouf plays a thinly veiled version of his own father, a Vietnam vet struggling with addiction and PTSD and two top-notch younger actors (Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges) play him as a tween and young adult, is both an exploration of LaBeouf’s troubled upbringing and the unique concerns of acting and money and fame. Behind the camera, Har’el does a fine job with giving the two timelines an ethereal quality, while in front, the drama focuses primarily on the talented younger “Otis” (Jupe) and his eccentric, traumatized and traumatizing alpha-male father. Jupe and LaBeouf are phenomenal, and audiences will wonder if LaBeouf was able to exorcise his demons and transcend the abuses of his past.
Nell Minow: Imagine Gypsy Rose Lee taking on the role of Mama Rose. Or Christina Crawford playing her mother Joan in Mommie Dearest. Honey Boy is another real-life story of a show business family, and this time Shia LaBoeuf shows us his life as a child actor with an abusive father — played by LaBoeuf himself as an act (in both senses of the word) of therapy as much as art. Sometimes painful to watch, but it is also a moving depiction of a man’s struggles to understand and perhaps forgive.
Jennifer Merin In Honey Boy, documentarian and music video director Alma Ha’rel brings her uniquely lyrical observational style to her first narrative feature about a child actor who has known little of childhood and whose coming of age is deeply troubled and troubling, to say the least. The script was written by Shia LeBeouf, who fictionalized his own tumultuous life story, chronicling the effects of his equally abusive and neglectful father’s bad parenting. LeBoeuf stars in the film as James, the character based upon his real life father, while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play Otis, the character based on LeBoeuf, at ages 12 and 22, respectively. The performances are superb, the story is compelling and the film is beautifully crafted.
Cate Marquis In Honey Boy, a child actor named Otis endures a harrowing childhood with his unstable father, a former rodeo clown and ex-alcoholic who is a mix of stage father, physical and emotional abuser, and neglectful parent. Alma Har’el directs from a semi-autobiographical script written by Shia LeBeouf, who plays the father, James, a complex man damaged by his own horrific childhood, in an affecting performance. Lucas Hedges plays the 22-year-old Otis, struggling to cope with alcoholism and the effects of his difficult childhood but the real standout performance is by Noah Jupe as 12-year-old Otis, whose life is divided between work as a child actor in TV shows and his life at a rundown motel, where the only bright spot is the pool where he swims daily. The film explores the father-son relationship, heavily impacted by the father’s sad history and Otis’ divorced parents’ rocky relationship and the strange circumstances of Otis’ life. FKA Twigs plays a girl living at the same motel who befriends Otis, in this surprising, moving portrait of a father and son relationship.
Title: Honey Boy
Directors: Alma Har’el
Release Date: November 8, 2019
Running Time: 94 minutes
Screenwriter: Shia LeBeouf
Distribution Company: Amazon Studios
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin