In Honey Boy, a young actor tries to break through to his often absent father who struggles with addiction that blocks him from accepting what his son tries to give him: a relationship.
Honey Boy is a 93-minute exercise in exorcising the father’s demons that haunt a grown son. In her narrative debut, Alma Har’el directs the Shia LaBeouf-scripted story in which Otis (Noah Lupe) struggles to find himself as an actor when his father (LaBeouf) refuses to father him. We follow Otis in two primary time periods: as a young child actor living in a hotel with his recovering alcoholic father with anger issues; and as an adult (Lucas Hedges), a movie star who all but mirrors his father in many ways and must deal with that dark mirroring before he loses his career. This story is raw, uncomfortable, and so earnestly real.
I don’t watch trailers, and the trailer-free life is a grand, freeing existence—usually. I knew nothing about Honey Boy before I went into it, and that may have actually hurt my viewing just slightly. I knew that Shia LaBeouf wrote and stars in it and that it’s about a father and son. One thing you should know—that I wish I’d known—before going in: this is about LaBeouf and his father. He is Honey Boy. I say this not to spoil things, but to give you a lens that I had to construct whilst viewing it.
Three actors give life to Honey Boy. First, Noah Lupe plays young Otis Lort in stark opposition to LaBeouf’s James, his father. Lupe plays Otis with such honesty, a child actor struggling to find legitimacy in the business that wants to do nothing but use him for cheap laughs. Meanwhile, his father is his paid chaperone, meaning that Otis is his own father’s boss, and they don’t really know how to handle that well. However, it’s the only way that his father will stick around. To accomplish this portrayal of such a tightrope walk of a relationship, Lupe gives a heart wrenching, beautiful performance.
Lucas Hedges, the evergreen Oscar-film dweller, plays the older Otis who struggles with the same addiction and anger issues that his father did. But his fame requires that he goes into rehab, and there he must wrestle with and fetter those demons that plague him. He’s utterly broken, unwilling to face his issues. Hedges, as always, acts from the heart, and the Academy will likely continue to ignore his work with anything more than a nominal nod.
Truly, however, the heart and soul of this film is Shia LaBeouf. He delivers as a writer, an actor, a son, a man coming into his own after a tumultuous journey. As James, LaBeouf is almost manic, at times seeming obsessed with his son’s upbringing while at other times hitting Otis for talking back. He transforms himself into his own father, speaking the words that must have cut and destroyed him as a child, that sent him on the path that ostracized him from Hollywood and his audience. The truth at the heart of this film slaps you in the face and keeps you going throughout it. Talk about a cathartic process for him to endure and for us to witness. It’s a shame that this will be largely overlooked at the Oscars this year, but LaBeouf gives everything to Honey Boy.
Shia LaBeouf channels deep anguish to portray the difficult James Lort; Noah Jupe is a fresh revelation on every level, and Lucas Hedges brings it home in the end. Ultimately, Honey Boy is a powerful, emotional exploration of a dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. It’s shocking and sad and wholly moving, with a final cathartic scene to rival just about anything out there.