Film Review: ‘Honey Boy’ Is So Much More Than Art Therapy

Mike Wass | November 7, 2019 4:26 pm
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Films about addiction and childhood trauma are staples of the awards season, but few explore those issues with as much candor and whimsy as Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy. Based on a screenplay by Shia LaBeouf, the coming of age saga documents the actor’s tumultuous upbringing and its emotional aftermath. Some critics have described the film as an act of art (or drama) therapy, but that infers that the underlying themes are less than universal. That the film is something to gawk at instead of feel. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Honey Boy opens with Otis Lort, Shia’s alter-ego, on the set of an action movie. Our protagonist is barely in his 20s, but the wear and tear of fame is already starting to show. Alone and cut-off from anything resembling a real connection, he plunges headfirst into the bottle. And, after a brush with the law, into rehab. It’s here that we first get an idea of the turmoil raging behind Otis’ stony facade. In Lucas Hedges’ hands, he’s foul-mouthed, aloof and generally thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. Which he probably is. Otis reluctantly decides to go along with the program, more to pass the time than anything else.

When Otis starts journalling, the past and the present collide. Har’el artfully takes us back to Otis’ early days in Hollywood, living on the outskirts of Los Angeles in a seedy motel with his dad, James (played by LaBeouf). A budding child actor with a Disney TV show, Young Otis (a revelatory Noah Jupe) is on the verge of adulthood and stardom. The kid’s proverbial ship has come in, but Lort Senior isn’t exactly the ideal guardian. An ex-con/rodeo clown, he is dedicated to his son’s success to an unhealthy extent.

Father and son practice lines together, usually while chain-smoking cigarettes, and share a cramped room littered with empty liquor bottles. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that James is not only neglectful, he’s also emotionally and, in one particularly brutal scene, physically abusive. This isn’t a hatchet job, however. James is meticulously brought to life, flaws and all, by LaBeouf. We discover the hard twists of fate that have led him to that motel room, while the misguided love that drives his behavior is palpable.

Honey Boy is at its most gripping in these flashback. Har’el creates a fever dream of neon lights and nostalgia. After cutting her teeth making music videos (including Sigur Rós’ “Fjögur píanó” starring LaBeouf), the Israeli visionary showed her unique sense of whimsy in 2011’s Bombay Beach. She further refines it here. There are surreal sequences around the pool, literal clowning and a cameo from FKA Twigs as the object of Young Otis’ affection.

At its core, Honey Boy is a tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is about finding beauty in ugliness, and clinging to those tender moments instead of drowning in blackness. And those themes are universal. Honey Boy is an important work of independent cinema that dares to embrace healing. It’s also a spellbinding showcase for Har’el, LaBeouf and Jupe, and yet another reminder that Hedges is one of the most interesting actors of his generation.

Score: 4.5/5

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