Written by Shia LaBeouf during his time in rehab, Honey Boy is a semi-autobiographical film in which Shia plays his own father. Upon discovering his alcoholism is connected to PTSD from his upbringing, twenty-two year old Otis (Lucas Hedges, Lady Bird & Manchester by the Sea) works through his memories within the rehab programme. These memories of himself as a twelve year old (played by the brilliant Noah Jupe, The Quiet Place) being pushed into movie stardom by his abusive father (Shia LaBeouf) take up the majority of this film. The flashbacks are connected so harmoniously to the present Otis; there is a subtle slide into these thoughts and the panic of remembering that is very real to a PTSD sufferer and it is presented conscientiously through the editing and acting. You feel the adult Otis’ unwanted pull into the past where his father left his mark on him, and the relationship that is told between the young boy and his dad is very real, very heart-breaking, and surprisingly tender.
The acting is outstanding, and Noah Jupe playing the twelve year old kid who smokes cigarettes his father gave him as rewards and who finds human connection in the much-older girl who lives across from him (FKA Twigs) because he doesn’t get that affection from his own parent, is heart-wrenching to watch. The reality of the situation is too real, and the amount of times I was uncomfortable watching Otis’ and the girls’ relationship enfold or seeing him smoking cigarette after cigarette, sometimes even sharing them with his father, was almost torturous. However, Shia LaBeouf’s performance is, too, award-worthy. You can see the precise way he acts, clearly taking cues from his own memories and reactions, and the subtly manipulative way he makes Otis feel responsible for his own issues is painfully real. The parent-child relationship will resonate with so many people, in the language and very intelligently-realised behaviours that both Shia and Jupe perform. To play the role of your own father in this way, to convey this perspective of your parent-child relationship, must have been difficult. There is no one type of emotion, no black and white view of his past, and there’s essentially an understanding and acceptance that Shia clearly brings into the narrative, enforced in the final moments as the older Otis rides his bike with his father clinging onto his back, replicating the many times Otis rode on the back of his dad’s bike to and from the various movie sets. It was a perfect closure, as Otis never said he forgave his dad, or worked through every one of his emotions or memories. Instead, it was the acceptance of the realisation that yes, he has PTSD, and now he knows that he can start to work on himself instead of being trapped.
Although I loved the powerful imagery of his father hugging him on the bike and thought it was a necessary picture to paint, the rest of the ‘present’ scenes leading up to that weren’t as solid as each of the ‘flashbacks’ he had. I understand why there was more of the past, and the present was just Otis coming to terms with the reality of his childhood (and honestly, some of the funniest moments came from Otis’ rehab adventures), and I believe the final shot on the bike made up for this as it was such a satisfying way to close the film (an extremely ambiguous but hopeful ending) but I just needed something a little bit more from the present-day. Maybe if Hedges’ character was developed on-screen slightly more before he went to rehab, as that was pretty much instantaneous from when the film began, but again, I understand why it was done this way; because the film is about Shia realising in rehab that he has PTSD from his father. That is the film. There needs be no more and no less from when the film ends and begins.
A slightly bigger issue for me was FKA Twigs’ unnamed character, credited as ‘shy girl’. Her character is essentially the only one to bring Otis any type of human contact, and whilst that tenderness and care was needed it was coming from the wrong person. This is something else that can resonate with the audience very strongly and understandably, as people naturally find connections with people and things that they shouldn’t, because they are starved of it in other areas of their life where it should be. This is why I understand Otis’ motivation and behaviour, but I slightly less understand what the girl’s motivation is. You see snippets of her life to indicate this, but to me it didn’t fully mesh with the clarity of Otis’, leaving me with a small feeling of discontent that was only made stronger by the fact the rest of the film and its characters were so clear and defined. But neither of the two things that I’ve mentioned as cons for Honey Boy are anywhere near enough to bring this film down. It is such an excellently written and acted piece of work that everyone involved should be proud of. The dialogue and the way Jupe and LaBeouf play off each other works so well within the film and I’m so happy it was that organic for them. The story is unique, yet universal, and I can’t wait to see more of Shia LaBeouf’s work in the future.
Honey Boy was completely enticing for every second of its playtime, and the audience in its full cinema gasped and laughed (because yes, there are multiple funny moments in this film that compliment the sorrow well) in unison. One of the final scenes, in which young Otis is shown by his father the marijuana plants he’s been growing at the side of the freeway, perfectly encompasses the relationship the two have together. His father sits behind Otis, cradling him, as they share a joint. He brings the joint up to Otis’ mouth, and the audience knows this is a shared tender moment between the two, but this family portrait is so sorrowful and almost laughably obscene in how natural their movements are. It’s heart-wrenching, heart-warming, and my favourite scene of the entirety of Honey Boy.