Sundance: Honey Boy

Rating: 3/4

I’ll make you a promise: You’ve never seen a film like Honey Boy.

In some sense, every film is an expression of the creator’s inner-turmoil, whether that’s the screenwriter, director, or both. In Honey Boy, director Alma Har’el takes on Shia LaBeouf‘s autobiographical script of a strained father-son relationship, which results in a self-destructive future for said son.

The kicker?

LaBeouf plays his father, while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, essentially portray a mirror of himself under the Otis moniker. The result finds one of the most fascinating self-explorations of artistic therapy in cinematic history.

The film opens with Otis (Hedges) on the set of a Transformers-esque film. He’s in a midshot, with a harness attached to him, waiting to be pulled back in a stunt. Hedges, throughout Honey Boy, provides an uncanny imitation of LaBeouf’s voice. His arc also finds Otis in court-ordered rehab because of an ongoing drug habit and a pattern of self-abusive behavior. There, with his therapist, he ruminates on the effects of his tumultuous childhood.

The film then cuts to another midshot of a younger Otis (Jupe) in the same pull back scene as we saw Hedges. Here, we discover his father James (LaBeouf). LaBeouf plays his dad as a fast-talking bullshitter, liar, and thief with a staccato cadence. The lines LaBeouf delivers offers few pauses. Instead, they spew out like a stream of consciousness. In short, they feel real. Meanwhile, the father-son relationship between Otis and James is less familial than transactionary. Otis views James as his employee because James — with a sharp dislike for any physical affection — creates emotional barriers.

LaBeouf’s screenplay captures an elusive interpretation of his father, one where he the a single dad, war Veteran, sufferer of some form of PTSD that’s led to a drug and alcohol habit, is neither completely good nor bad. Nevertheless, he’s severely jealous of his son’s success — who’s risen past the rodeo-clown circuit that James is stuck in. With time, LaBeouf has found perspective and nuance in his childhood, and funneled both into his script.

Still, Honey Boy is weakest when we flash forward to the Hedges’ incarnation. Yes, he’s meant to demonstrate what Otis becomes — due to his smoking and romantic relationship with an older woman (FKA Twigs), but the best drama is confined to Jupe and LaBeouf. The two intersecting timelines of Hedges and Jupe only succeeds because of some fantastic cross-cutting by editors Dominic LaPerriere and Monica Salazar, who are the low-key stars of the film along with cinematographer Natasha Braier, who provides gorgeous hues of purple lighting.

Maybe because only an actor like LaBeouf would even consider playing his own father, but it’s a wonder how this film was ever made. Honey Boy is made all the more special, intimate, and interesting because of said decision. In short, it’s an example of the therapy art offers within the confines of a screen, and I’m glad it exists.

Images ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’

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