It is common advice that one should ‘write what you know’, but Honey Boy takes that maxim to 11, Shia LaBeouf writing a film about his own childhood and young adulthood in Hollywood, drawing directly from the TV and films he starred in and even playing his own father. Just as much an act of therapy as a movie, Honey Boy is of course massively self-indulgent, but a raft of great performances and impressively moving moments, as well an engaging and stylish direction from debut filmmaker Alma Har’el turn this issue into a strength.
Set in 1995 and 2005, Honey Boy sees Shia stand-in Otis (played by Noah Jupe as a child and Lucas Hedges as a young adult) try and balance his work with his traumatically chaotic personal life. In rehab after a car crash in 2005, Otis is informed by his therapists that he has PTSD, so he looks to his younger years to find the cause. As a kid, he lived in a motel with his loser father, who was violent, jealous, volatile, and self-pitying, and we see Otis forced to grow up far too fast.
LaBeouf turns in a startling, raw performance as his dad, but in both his writing and acting he makes sure to retain a tenderness. Though the moments of warmth between father and son hardly make up for the abuse and neglect that was more common, they are deeply affecting, while the nastier stuff digs under your skin. Crucial to this is the 12 year old Jupe, who is absolutely remarkable, finding a balance of vulnerability and maturity, as well as white-hot rage when called for. Huge credit has to go to Har’el for drawing such a strong performance, as well as for her ability to find an original way of visualising life on that most overused movie location, a film set.
Of the three leads, Hedges has the least interesting role, but the ensemble in his rehab centre are fun, funny company, and his Shia impression is spot-on without ever being a joke or a gimmick. It feels slightly odd passing judgement on a piece of art that is so deeply, profoundly personal, but Honey Boy, despite clearly being made for the primary demographic of Shia LaBeouf, never alienates and provides a confessional insight into its subject that cannily dodges the pitfalls of an outright vanity project.