Honey Boy is a film that is almost uncomfortably personal- it’s like reading someone’s diary or listening in on a private moment. Written by Shia Labeouf while he was in rehab, it’s a retelling of his own life and relationship with his father, who Labeouf also plays in the film. Clearly it’s a means of coping for Labeouf, and it’s also a bifurcated narrative feature that will be seen by many more than are involved in the story. It has to stand on its own and be more than just a personal essay, which is why I’m happy to say that its one of the absolute best films I’ve seen this year. Honey Boy is downright hypnotic and heartbreaking all at once, and it’s very existence may be therapeutic.
While it’s based on Labeouf’s life, it’s distinguished enough that the lead character goes by a different name. As a child actor, Otis (Noah Jupe) is pushed to success by his father James (Shia Labeouf), a reckless former alcoholic that tries to be Otis’s manager and best friend without ever really being his father. Reflecting upon his relationship with his father, an older Otis (Lucas Hedges) looks back at his childhood while in therapy and tries to come to grips with why he’s developed the way he has.
The crux of the film is the scenes with a younger Otis (who we may as well call Shia), and it’s got to be one of the most transfixing depictions of being a young star that I’ve ever seen. Otis is treated like a professional on set and returns home to his father’s shabby apartment each night to learn lines, and its this intimate setting where most of the film takes place. James feels the constant need to explain to Otis what his role is; James sees himself as Otis’s “cheerleader” who doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional parenting figure, and his insistence that he gave up his own aspirations for the sake of his son instills a great deal of guilt within Otis. Otis is caught between his parents’ fighting and gives onscreen performances meant to reflect his father’s failed Hollywood dreams, and the scenes with an older Otis allow him to understand why this happened.
Noah Jupe’s performance may be one of the best child actor performances I’ve ever seen- his inability to voice to his father exactly how he feels is perfectly suited for someone in this situation (particularly a kid). We see the psychological games that James plays on Otis in order to convince him to stay, but the fact that James also treats him like an adult at all times also puts him in a place where both characters are completely open. What’s most profound about the story is that James isn’t seen as an evil guy- beneath his selfishness and manipulation is a desire to see his son succeed, but its his combination of self-pity and lack of concern for Otis’s well-being that makes him so destructive.
This lack of concern isn’t always told in the most obvious ways; yes, there’s obvious cases like letting Otis smoke and putting his father’s expectations on him, but it also comes from how James frames himself. He wants to be seen by Otis to be both essential and tragic, and Labeouf sells this quality with upmost grace, to the point that I’d be very disappointed if Labeouf doesn’t earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He’s able to play James as someone so used to deceiving that he’s unsure of where he actually stands, and the ambitious note on which the film ends speaks to how complicated this father-son relationship may be to this day.
At first, the therapy scenes seem like they could be an unnecessary bit of framing, but they prove to be essential in the film’s catharsis. As James spirals away in the past timeline, Otis finds himself carrying many of his same traits, and the dualities that grow between both timelines do a great job at exploring what a lifetime of irresponsible parenting and playing different characters does to a person. The therapy scenes certainly allow Otis to verbalize feelings that he simply couldn’t as a child, and they are essential in keeping the film from being just a collection of memories.
This is Alma Har’el’s narrative directorial debut, and it’s a very bold statement from an up and coming filmmaker. There’s a lot of visual beauty, and the visual cues that carry over from both timelines don’t feel overbearing or forced. I think I was most impressed by her restraint; at one point Otis seems to be having a breakthrough, but a clever bit of framing show that things didn’t play out exactly that way, and the film’s wordless conclusion has to be one of the most gripping things I’ve seen all year.
I’ve been a consistent admirer of Shia Labeouf and his performances, but even for those not familiar with his work or not informed on his story, Honey Boy is a gripping depiction of how childhood trauma ripples out into the future. It’s not a sweeping statement about what everyone goes through, but a personal soliloquy, and I felt welcomed to listen to what the film was saying. Honey Boy is a future classic- it’s a unique way of sharing a story that I can’t compare to anything else I’ve seen. Grade: A+