2019 – the year of Shia LaBeouf. Having brought himself back from the brink of collapse following an arrest and stint in rehab in 2014, LaBeouf shrank back from the Hollywood scene, reappearing briefly for American Honey (2016) and Borg vs McEnroe (2017). Then, earlier this year I was privileged to see The Peanut Butter Falcon, in which he stars in a Huckleberry Finn-style story as he helps a young man with Down’s Syndrome escape from his care home. I was blown away by the performances, particularly LaBeouf, who took to his role as a reluctant ‘older brother’ so brilliantly I was moved to tears – Read that review here.
Now he’s following up with Honey Boy, written by the man himself and a feature directorial debut for Alma Har’el. Much like The Peanut Butter Falcon, this is a tough watch but for very different, more poignant reasons.
Noah Jupe stars as Otis, a 12 year-old child actor living in a motel with his dad, James (LaBeouf). Otis is a respected hard worker, dedicated to his job and well-loved by his on-set colleagues. At home, he’s trained up by his dad, who himself had his heart set on becoming a world famous clown but their life together isn’t all laughs.
James, as an alcoholic ex-drug user, has a violent temper and when Otis doesn’t heed his advice, things can get uncomfortable to watch. The pair quickly swap back and forth between child and parent, and Otis is confident in the knowledge that if he wasn’t financially supporting his dad, he probably wouldn’t be hanging around to look after him.
Despite Shia’s name lingering under ‘Written by’ during the opening credits, it took me until the fade-to-black to realise that the story is loosely based on his own experiences growing up. Starting early on in acting, Otis’ experiences reflect Shia’s time filming Even Stevens, a popular kids’ television show from the mid 90s. We see his morning routine of waking James with a cup of coffee, then disappearing off to set, sometimes collected by his dad after a long day – and depending on the mood James is in, these home time collections aren’t always pleasant and peaceful.
Jupe, who recently featured in racing drama Le Mans 66, lets everything play out on his young face. When elated, his laugh lifts all of his features and we see the child that he/Otis/LaBeouf is/was. But with the majority of his story played out under the shadow of his controlling, manipulative father, Jupe’s eyesbrows furrow and mouth turns down. He bursts with energy LaBeouf just won’t let him release and this comes to the fore during their painful, heartbreaking fights.
While we see one new bright-light break through, we witness Shia’s reignite in Honey Boy. Playing his own father – or a character heavily inspired by his dad – must’ve felt like one never-ending therapy session and it shows in every line of dialogue he spits out. Razor tongued, quick to anger, yet incredibly hurt and vulnerable, James is desperate to show the world he’s a good father, while his hand slaps Otis’ face. Once the end credits start to roll and we realise what – who – we’ve been watching, it makes reflecting on Shia’s story all the more painful.
The pair are supported by ethereal FKA Twigs and the powerful Lucas Hedges, who plays Otis as a troubled 22 year-old, facing another rehab stay. Partner 90 minutes of wrenching acting with Har’el’s subtle, stunning direction and cinematography, and you’ve got an almost-love letter to an unlovable man.
Recent reports have stated that to get his dad on-board with the project, Shia told him that Mel Gibson would play him, only to sit him down with the final version to watch his reaction. A daring move to perfectly suit a daring film.