With a screenplay written in therapy, you anticipate raw emotion, confession, honesty. You expect to broach dark, reflective moments and you imagine it being so personal that it’ll feel near-intrusive to sit and watch. Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy is all of those things.
The semi-autobiographical script in question was adapted from a writing exercise LaBeouf completed while serving a court-ordered stint in a rehab facility. What began as a form of therapy, searching for the root of his anger issues and substance abuse, became the basis of Honey Boy. After impressing director Alma Ha’rel, LaBeouf’s story was first shown at Sundance earlier this year and saw a similarly great response at TIFF too.
Narrative-wise, we delve into the story of LaBeouf’s childhood and how his struggles with his father growing up led him down a troubled path. Not quite the stereotypical “child actors gone bad because they’re spoilt”, which much of the media has peddled for the last decade. Throughout the 94-minute film, we bounce between (almost) present day with (almost) LaBeouf – aka Otis – and himself 10 years prior. The older version played perfectly by Lucas Hedges, who rarely misses the mark anyway but seems to thrive in roles which need emotional volatility (see: Ben Is Back). While his younger self is also played impressively by British actor Noah Jupe, whose part takes on much of the emotional trauma in the storyline.
It’s in the earlier timeline where we see LaBeouf’s father figure, named James Lort here and played by LaBeouf himself. He’s a motorcycle-loving, hairline-receding, motel-living dad who’s serving up his fathering duties with a side of emotional and physical abuse. Meanwhile, the bill is being paid by his son, who’s bringing in the money for both of them thanks to his role in an Even Stevens-esque TV show.
It’s a gripping story. I, like many, have been guilty in the past of dismissing LaBeouf’s actions without realising the steps that led to his, often very public, reinventions. It’s undoubtedly cathartic for LaBeouf. His unique life story, however, makes it difficult to get the same feeling of personal relief. The raw emotion is there, you really do feel it, but it’s hard for that to stick with you.
However, stepping back into the real world, putting this experience down on paper seems to have helped LaBeouf manage any mental health challenges he’s had. He’s seemingly reinvented himself once again, but this time, he’s found a groove. Honey Boy rounds off a remarkable year on-screen – one which also includes his role in the heart-warming tale of The Peanut Butter Falcon. Publicly, his decision to only take interviews if it also included his then-co-star Zak Gottsegen is a far cry from the performance artist who once wore a paper bag over his head at Berlin Film Festival.
LaBeouf had been all but written off as another victim of child actor burnout, but he’s back to his best and long do we hope it remains.
Honey Boy is in UK cinemas 6th December.