In Honey Boy, child actor Otis (Noah Jupe) gets about the best Method acting training someone could ask for: playing both of his parents in real time during a violently emotional fight. He’s on the phone with his mother, whom we never see, but he eerily channels a heartbroken, exasperated woman as his father James (Shia LaBeouf) towers over him, yelling profanities back. Dutifully, Otis delivers his father’s side of the conversation back to his mom, also doing his best to channel the emotionality, though it’s clear he’s audible on the other end of the line. When it’s clear the conversation is no longer salvageable, Otis goes out to the wrecking yard that neighbors the motel he lives in with his father, and promptly smashes some windows.
Honey Boy, the much-speculated-about film directed by Alma Har’el, written by LaBeouf and largely based on his own childhood (and subsequent rocky adulthood,) in many ways resembles other films about chaotic childhoods, alcoholism, and abuse. It distinguishes itself in the manner it weaves the concerns of an actor into that trauma. The film flashes back and forth between Otis’s life as a 12-year-old up-and-coming TV star to Otis in his 20s (played by Lucas Hedges), in rehab after a drunk driving incident. In therapy at the rehab facility, and forced to process the abuse of his childhood, he finally loses it on his counselor. “The only thing my father gave me that was worth anything was pain,” Otis says, “And you’re trying to take it away from me.”
How much that pain is truly worth is something the film has far from an easy conclusion about. Unfortunately, much of the rest of Honey Boy feels like a therapy session with an intended audience of perhaps two. LaBeouf’s performance channeling his own father feels like an integral part of that therapy. Though most viewers will have never met Jeffrey LaBeouf, it’s easy to imagine that he is more or less recreated in James, down to the thinning hairs on top of his head here, a conjuring of a demon, an attempt to get inside that demon and understand it. A former rodeo clown and convicted sex offender, he’s both possessive and resentful of his son, who is both his meal ticket and the source of his sense of identity. Because of his father’s history, Otis is a part of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program; and early in the film James invites Otis’ significantly more stable Big Brother over to “get to know him,” which quickly devolves into James physically assaulting Tom and forbidding him from seeing his son.
James runs Otis’s lines with him, gives him rides to and from the studio, and intervenes when a show tries to keep him on set longer than child labor laws allow. He also physically and verbally abuses him, pushes cigarettes on him, and seems to refuse him from forming any other relationships, even (especially) the sex worker across the parking lot who takes a liking to him (FKA Twigs.) It’s a classic codependent parent relationship, and Otis frequently has to be the adult. The absurdity of the Disney Channel-esque material that Otis is taking in order to keep a roof over his and his father’s head only adds to the whiplash emotional effect of their hot and cold abusive relationship. (Yes, there are recreations of both Michael Bay-esque films and Even Stevens-esque shows.)
As an origin story for a young actor’s warped worldview, Honey Boy is compelling. But the stuff with Otis sorting through this origin story feels unnecessary — the film should do that work on its own. It shifts a film about emotional work, and processing trauma, into a story about Shia LaBeouf’s emotional work. And that ultimately sells that emotional work short.