"The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain...and you want to take that away?" 

As someone who is less than a year younger than Shia LaBeouf and grew up watching Even Stevens there was no doubt that Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy was going to be something of an emotional endeavor; a deeply moving experience that would both be reminiscent of while also completely unraveling this element of my early teen years that created nothing but fond memories. This is obviously an extremely personal piece and it's tough sometimes to criticize as much, but thankfully there's little need for that here as LaBeouf relays exposure therapy sessions that helped him work through the trauma caused by his relationship with his father during a specific point in time in a way that pieces together both how he grew into the person he's become as well as exploring how he's moved past it. It's cathartic, sure, but for viewers who can remember how naturally funny and flat-out talented LaBeouf came across in that Disney channel show, Honey Boy also serves as this honest, unguarded piece of insight into the pain behind that comedy.

The film goes back and forth between LaBeouf's time as a child actor (referred to as Otis in the film), when he was living in a motel with his father who would come to set and run lines with him, and the post-arrest version of LaBeouf (Lucas Hedges) as he attempts to immerse himself in this treatment that has him repeating these stories that scarred him until they don't hurt anymore. As played by Noah Jupe, twelve year-old Otis adores his father and seeks his affection unabashedly yet his father, James (LaBeouf), has no real idea what it means to be a good dad or role model; instead James simply dismisses any display of emotion with a distant, "wipe your face, Otis. Don't cry in front of me." It's devastating, but so is most of what we see depicted in the film. Jupe's younger Otis is dealing with this father figure who wants to be good to him, wants to be there for him, but isn't good for his development in any sense of the word (his dad nonchalantly offering him cigarettes and booze at the age of twelve) and it seems Otis understands this, but doesn't know another way to navigate what he's experiencing other than to go along with it. There are key lines that stand out as pure truth that one can tell stuck with LaBeouf from his childhood as well, things such as his father resorting to bragging about the sound of his own piss hitting the toilet. Moments when there aren't really words to describe the amount of tragedy being experienced and within many of these scenarios LaBeouf paints one simply has to let the heartbreak wash over them while knowing this little boy has comes out the other side and is doing better. Alex Somers' fantastic score also helps considerably in allowing said tragedy to flow over and around the viewer rather than overwhelm them.

Of course, this is LaBeouf's show and his performance as his father is likely a therapy session in and of itself. What it must have been like to even consider trying to get into such a headspace is almost beyond comprehension. Sure, LaBeouf may have worked through most of it in the writing process, but to embody this individual who brought so many conflicting feelings into your life has to at least present a sense of control over this being, this attitude that formerly controlled every aspect of your own life. The ability to step into their shoes and see-or to challenge-what inclined them to make such choices had to be the draw as otherwise such an experiment would only feel like re-living this traumatic period. That's the curious thing about Honey Boy though, as this is never a movie that feels like it's out to vilify the father or even excuse his actions, but simply to discover this man LaBeouf inherently loves, but to discover him from a perspective unable to have been previously seen.

Shia LaBeouf plays James AKA a version of his father in the autobiographical Honey Boy.
© 2019 - Amazon Studios
Jupe (of A Quiet Place and Ford v Ferrari) is exceptional among a trio of excellent performers here as his young Otis is actively working to support his family at the age of twelve and live up to not only the expectations his parents hold for him, but to the expectations they held for their own lives; the pressure of fulfilling multiple sets of ambitions weighing on this child's mind. While LaBeouf himself is operating on an entirely different plane in his performance (a key scene with Clifton Collins Jr. is jaw-dropping) it is Jupe’s honest and raw portrayal of this young man that truly sells the nature of this character and his arc. While LaBeouf’s performance is something of a revelation (and I don’t use that word lightly) it wouldn’t work without the performance of Jupe who not only balances the relationship, but humanizes it. Speaking to Jupe’s Otis further, the boy truly only desires to be shown real affection by his parents (as bridged through FKA Twigs’ character), but is instead utilized more by them as a conduit for their arguments and a bank for their bad habits. Jupe’s range and genuine talent shine in a scene where young Otis relays his parent’s arguments to one another as they refuse to speak to one another over the phone. Otis listens to his mother and then performs her dialogue in front of his father only to then voice his father’s rebuttal back to his mother as if in the booth for an animated movie recording session; turning his parent’s fights into theater and using them as an excuse to practice his craft. Like I said, heartbreaking.

This isn't a woe is me story though and it never feels that way. LaBeouf’s film ultimately isn't a vindictive portrait to try and exact revenge on his father for how he treated him either, but more it's an attempt to work through and understand why his father was the way that he was and forgive him for something he might not be wholly responsible for. Some may say this is extremely gracious on the part of LaBeouf and that his father doesn't necessarily deserve to be redeemed after the physical and verbal abuse through which he put his son, but then there is a scene where James has made an effort to go to an AA meeting and talks about how he was raised by someone who was raised by someone that essentially didn't know how to deal with everything they were feeling and the pain they were experiencing except through drinking. It is in this moment that we understand the scope of what LaBeouf is attempting to encapsulate through telling his story, but it’s still rather unbelievable that after seeing what he was put through that the now adult LaBeouf is compassionate to the point he is willing to dig far enough back to form an understanding of not only why his father's actions brought him to this point, but what actions brought his father to the point he was at. It’s extremely perceptive and if not necessarily gratifying at least seems to have provided some sense of closure for LaBeouf.

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