The names have been changed but “Honey Boy” is based on Shia LaBeouf’s childhood as a young actor and what we see on screen is far from glamorous.
To tell this heartbreaking story, LaBeouf takes on the role of his father, a former rodeo clown, alcoholic and Army veteran suffering from PTSD. The always impressive Lucas Hedges plays the 22-year-old version of LaBeouf while Noah Jupe delivers a remarkable performance as the 12-year-old embodiment of the actor who suffered abuse under his father’s tough love.
Directed by Alama Har’el based on LaBeouf’s memories, the personal film is therapeutic and moving and will forever change our perception of the actor who got his start on the Disney Channel.
The film opens with 22-year-old Otis (Hedges) attached to a harness for a sequence in an action film that propels him through the air while explosions flare up all around him. The director yells “cut” and Otis is left dangling until someone pulls him down. The big budget shoot correlates with LaBeouf’s timeline who at that age was starring in Michael Bay’s “Transformers.”
Hedges, who received an Oscar nomination for his breakthrough role in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea,” is perfectly cast as Otis. The phenomenal actor knows how to play “troubled,” and his rage-filled performance is one of the film’s highlights. “Honey Boy” would have benefitted by concentrating more on this time period just to give Hedges more screen time.
Written by LaBeouf, the film is semiautobiographical and exists in this alternate universe where everything is slightly different, but there’s no denying that we are watching LaBeouf’s life unfold in front of us. Never once does the film feel like a vanity project. Instead, this is LaBeouf going transparent. It’s no surprise that he wrote the story while in rehab after his 2017 arrest in Savannah, Ga., for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness.
The video of the arrest went viral, and after rewatching it recently you can see the influence of LaBeouf’s father in his behavior.
It’s haunting to watch after seeing the actor portray his father, Jeffrey (named James Lort for the film), on screen. Immediately you are left with an undeniable feeling of empathy.
The film’s MVP is 14-year-old Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”), who plays Otis at age 12. This was during the time period LaBeouf was acting on “Even Stevens,” and it’s hard to comprehend how he showed up on set daily, scenes memorized, ready to perform comedy, after witnessing the mental and physical abuse suffered under the care of his father.
The young Otis lives with his dad, James, in a shabby Los Angeles motel close to the film set. LaBeouf is amazing in the role. With a receding hairline and round wire-rimmed glasses, the actor is transformed into his father.
He’s paid a salary by Otis to be his chaperone, a dynamic that affects both of them. In a solemn moment, James asks Otis, “How do you think it feels to have my son paying me?” The teary-eyed Otis responds, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you.”
The father and son love each other despite their volatile relationship. Har’el does a superb job of bringing that deep emotion to the forefront. James is a coach who inspires Otis to give 100% every day, all day. “I know you got what it takes. You’re a star. That’s why I’m here.”
The supporting cast features a very good FKA Twigs as a prostitute nicknamed Shy Girl who lives in the same motel as James and Otis. She bonds with the 12-year-old – the two both victims of abuse – and becomes a mother figure to the preteen. The complex moments between Jupe and Twigs provide a tender respite from the emotionally charged scenes featuring LaBeouf and the young actor.
LaBeouf, Hedges and Jupe form a trifecta of talent that makes “Honey Boy” one of the best films of the year and the pinnacle of LaBeouf’s career.