By Leah Greenblatt
January 26, 2019 at 10:06 AM EST
Natasha Braier/Sundance Institute

Maybe Honey Boy is called Honey Boy because calling it Being Shia LaBoef would feel too literal, and too familiar. It is LaBeouf’s life story more or less — though he’s chosen, in true Charlie Kaufman style, to take on the role of his own father in his screenwriting debut.

He stars as the lightly fictionalized James Lort, a party clown-slash-Army vet with a short fuse, a long mullet, and a loud opinion on pretty much everything, including his hard-won sobriety. In the scenes set in circa-1995 Los Angeles, he’s also the sole guardian and nominal caretaker of his 12-year-old son Otis (Noah Jupe) who pays the rent on their shabby motor-court apartment by acting in TV shows.

In modern-day Los Angeles Otis has grown into Lucas Hedges, the star of a hugely successful action franchise and a less successful personal life. Thanks to his own addiction and anger issues, he’s become the reluctant ward of a rehab program that aims to heal with a series of gentle, self-actualizing tasks: cleaning out chicken coops, knitting endless scarves, learning to hug yourself with both arms. But his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) also wants him to dig into the dad stuff; cue the flashbacks.

Director Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach) works in a sort of loose verité style that lands somewhere between Harmony Korine and Andrea Arnold, and she excels at setting a mood, letting her camera linger on the sun-baked torpor and grit of the L.A. tourists don’t ever come to see.

With his bandana’d hairline and owlish glasses, LaBeof looks like a sort of trailer-park David Foster Wallace, and inhabits exactly the kind of petty tyrant that classic bad-dad cinema is made of: a damaged man-child who hates because he hurts, and leaves emotional wreckage everywhere he goes. (Snapshots in the end credits reveal the real man — in and out of his clown suits — and the real young LaBeouf too).

What makes the movie feel like more than the sum of its plot is the actors: not just the one who wrote it but the British-born Jupe (A Quiet Place, Suburbicon), who looks like a cherub in a church fresco even when he’s smoking his 57th cigarette, and gives a remarkably tender and unsentimental performance. And Hedges, who doesn’t seem to have found a role yet he can’t fully inhabit; his Otis is raw and furious, and genuinely funny.

If Honey‘s arc feels stamped in an certain kind of indie template, it still builds a sneaky kind of emotional capital. It’s also an intriguing window into LaBeouf, the kid who became a star and then a wreck and then a punchline — then somehow fought his way back to a place where he owns his story again, and can tell it exactly how he wants to. B

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