Shia LaBeouf’s self-portrait in “Honey Boy” constitutes one of the earnest films of the year, as well as a piece of finely crafted drama that transcends the ordinary.
There was a time when Shia LaBeouf seemed like the next Hollywood poster boy. Charismatic, gifted with a decent talent bolted on, the Cali-born actor skyrocketed his career after starring in “Transformers”, back in 2007. But when the success got to his head, LaBeouf turned from a hot prospect to a synonym of a celebrity disaster – a man equivalent of Lindsay Lohan as to say.
But it was only back in 2017, when the real breakdown took place, which led to a court-ordered rehab and one year of probation. However, just like BoJack Horseman leaves the facility as a changed horse in the show’s final season, Shia LaBeouf too seized the opportunity to gather his thoughts and leave a different man.
The result of this self-cleansing was the script of “Honey Boy”, which was later on given to the actor’s dear friend, debuting director Alma Har’el.
Rather than a biopic structure, “Honey Boy” treats LaBeouf’s memories as a set of recollections divided into two separate timelines. One portrays the actor’s youth, back when he lived in a cramped flat in the projects, along with his drunkard father. The second illustrates LaBeouf’s struggle in the rehab facility.
While the first focuses on answering the why, the latter part feels like a testimony of what Shia had to go through in the journey to sobriety.
The film starts with a feverish sequence, in which Lucas Hedges, who plays the adult version of LaBeouf, stars in a speeding PowerPoint presentation like one from fast-and-furious. The stream of booze, noise, sex and anger ends with a car crash. Har’el intentionally lets us wear the shoes of the protagonist. But once Hedges lands in the facility, the female director moves onto the childhood period, with Noah Jupe playing the kid version of Hedges.
And that’s where “Honey Boy” becomes a glowing gem.
One of the most stunning and mind-blowing facts about “Honey Boy” is that LaBeouf tackles the role of his own abusive father. Although the names are changed on purpose, this is a deeply therapeutic choice, alas it poses danger to LaBeouf too, as the actor forces himself to relive the trauma again. Nevertheless, this has to be his so-far career pinnacle – a role that’s mesmerising, repelling and one that hits home in a tear-me-apart way. There is auto-realisation here, acknowledgment of the parental mistakes made by his father and finding traces of happiness in the darkest hour of the LaBeouf’s life.
Much of “Honey Boy’s” power is derived from young Noah Jupe too. Jupe has that kind of lovable babyface and innocence that you immediately fall in love with. His character’s pure intentions to gain father’s appreciation feel honest and heart-breaking. At the same time, LaBeouf as a father nails the conflict of someone who both loves and hates his kid – a burden and the only reason to keep on going. It’s raw and it’s palpably real.
These two could easily carry the film themselves, and with all due respect to Hedges, his part seems more necessary to LaBeouf’s self-inflicted therapy, rather than leaving a long-lasting impression on the viewers. If not for the pure joy of seeing a talented actor like Lucas Hedges at work, the rehab part could jeopardise the efforts of LaBeouf and Jupe. Har’el has little clue as to where to push this storyline too, and it seems as if it exists mostly for the sake of the devastating (and uplifting) finale.
Despite its powerhouse performances at the story’s heart, “Honey Boy” isn’t only an emotional hands-free ride. Har’el skilfully creates her own, artistic vision. The director paints the photography in pastel tints of purple and blue, and keeps the camera at a very personal distance, close to the actors. Even though it sometimes feels claustrophobic, as if the world was inhabited by these two people only, Har’el rewarding style is exhilarating enough to carry that slightly hectic narrative.
There’s also one final particle that squeezes tears out of eyes in “Honey Boy”. The score, composed by Alex Somers, oozes a dreamy atmosphere, as if this entire story was just a nightmare that the author will forget in the morning. By fiddling with lullaby-like bells, off-beat piano and ambient whirring of some unidentified machines, Somers tells a story of his own – charming, but keeping monsters inside of it too.
“Honey Boy” is cathartic not only for Shia LaBeouf, but also for the viewers who let Har’El’s narrative in. It’s a touching story and one that marks a win for the independent cinema too. But most importantly, it’s just good to have Shia back.
Overall impression: Beautifully crafted, and deeply moving thanks to its real-life meaning, “Honey Boy” announces a glorious return of Shia LaBeouf and a chance to rise for Alma Har’El.
Honey Boy (2019)
Dir. Alma Har’El
Hate Grade: 2/10
Where to watch “Honey Boy”? It’s in the cinemas now.