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 — and his screenwriting debut — though he’s chosen, in true Charlie Kaufman style, to pass on playing himself and take on the role of his own father instead.
He’s only half recognizable as the lightly fictionalized James Lort, a party clown–slash–Army vet with a short fuse, a long mullet, and loud opinions 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 various laugh-tracked TV shows.
In modern-day L.A., Lucas Hedges becomes the grown Otis — star of a hugely successful action franchise and a far 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) won’t let him off the hook when it comes to discussing his father; 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. Hedges, who doesn’t seem to have found a role yet he can’t fully inhabit, unpeels an Otis who is raw, furious, and genuinely funny; and the singer FKA Twigs, in her first screen role, has a small but memorably tender turn.
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 now, finally, gets to tell it exactly how he wants to. B