There are a great number of personal movies playing at this year’s Denver Film Festival, but Honey Boy is the rare intersection between personal memoir and commercial enterprise. One that ought to break out of the festival circuit and into mainstream theaters.
Written, produced, and starring Shia LaBeouf in a supporting role, Honey Boy is a memoir of two ages: The first takes place in 2005 with 22-year-old Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) making a Transformers-esque Hollywood blockbuster. At this point in his life, Otis is already out of control. He drinks, carouses, and lets his aggression take the wheel. He has two drunk-driving arrests under his belt; a third lands him in a court-appointed rehab facility.
A second story runs parallel — this one taking place in 1995 — and finds 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) making an Even Stevens-esque sitcom. Director Alma Har’el introduces both stories similarly: Otis is rigged to a stunt wire that will pull him away from the camera. In the 2005 story, it is an explosion that “knocks” Otis back. In the 1995 story, it is a cream pie in the face that sends Otis flying. In both, the rigging shows how Otis’ life is beyond his control. And the harness he struggles to remove is beyond his ability. As much as he hates to admit it, Otis needs help.
Though Hedges is good, the 1995 storyline with Jupe as Otis and LaBeouf as Otis’ father, James Lort, is the better of the two. LaBeouf is extraordinary as his father: a one-time rodeo clown, now a recovering alcoholic with a cocaine addiction and a sex-offender rap.
James is a familiar figure of addiction: In control occasionally, helpless to his disease at key moments; charismatic and charming when he wants, violent and aggressive when faced with no other option. He is a broken man, full of regret and frustration, and when his back is against the wall, he’ll break what’s closest to him. Often that’s Otis, who bears his father’s burden with Catholic reception. As an actor, this pain serves Otis well. It gives him a deep well he can draw upon when needed — and illuminates why LaBeouf has always been a compelling, if not deeply troubled, performer from day one. It also gives Otis the emotional baggage he must shed while in rehab.
Honey Boy is filmmaking as catharsis. By writing the script, LaBeouf gets to tell his side of the story. By playing his father, LaBeouf exercises a demon long dormant in his life. And by allowing Har’el to direct the film, Honey Boy steers clear of indulgent acting, gratuitous moments, or lack-luster images where the actor decided that performance is more important than presentation. Her direction is stylish, elliptical, and engrossing. From start to finish, Honey Boy is a success.
Directed by Alma Har’el
Written by Shai LeBoeuf
Produced by Anita Gou, Alma Har’el, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Chris Leggett, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Laura San Giacomo, Byron Bowers
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 94 minutes, Opens November 8, 2019