Truth is almost always stranger than fiction, especially in Hollywood. Shia LaBeouf knows this perhaps better than anyone. The former child star was vaulted to success after leading the hit “Transformers” franchise. Yet, the actor increasingly became known for bad behavior and performance art. His latest film, “Honey Boy,” which he also wrote, casts LaBeouf as his own Father, whom he had a difficult relationship with. This feels in line with recent stunts that involved wearing a paper bag to a premiere, renting out a theater to marathon through all his movies or setting up an installation where people hurl insults at him. Yet, “Honey Boy” proves to be a magnetic and emotional film that catapults LaBeouf back on top. He does the best work of his career in the film. Between this and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” LaBeouf looks to be on the rebound with a strong 2019.
The film takes place in two timelines. The first, in 2005, finds Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) struggling on the set of a new action film. After a drunken night out ends in a car crash, Otis is sentenced to a court-mandated rehab program, which challenges him to find the source of his behavioral issues. This brings us to ten years earlier when Otis (Noah Jupe) was acting on a kid’s show and paying his Father, James (LaBeouf) to be his chaperone. The two live in a trailer park outside of town and commute to work on the back of James’ motorcycle. As the shoot wears on, the shifting power dynamic becomes more and more volatile, leading James to lash out.
It’s almost impossible to ignore the meta aspects of the film. Luckily, the film makes the smart decision to lean into these moments rather than further fictionalize itself. As the credits roll, we see photographs of a young LaBeouf and his actual Father. In these moments, one recalls the comedic promise of LaBeouf in Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens” and reflects on what the experience shooting that project must have been like. The movie only becomes more powerful by acknowledging itself as more memoir than fiction.
The script, by Shia LaBeouf, feels wonderfully specific even as it tries to simplify the scope or narrative beats. On a sheer character and location basis, the movie could easily work as a play. Yet, director Alma Har’el makes sure the experience feels cinematic as possible. She plays with color and editing in a way that fully realizes the world through the eyes of Jupe’s Otis. Even as the Father-Son relationship gets increasingly ugly, Har’el gives everything a visual flourish that helps maintain Otis’ child-like hope.
Shia LaBeouf turns in an astounding performance as James Lort, a rodeo clown now paid by his son to be a chaperone. At first glance, it seems almost narcissistic or the epitome of naval-gazing to play one’s own abusive father. Yet, LaBeouf manages to make this his most affecting piece of performance art yet. He fully commits to James’ perspective, hitting more beats than just jealousy. LaBeouf understands that James possesses more pride than contempt in Otis and that there’s some earnestness towards his desire to make Otis the best actor possible. Yet, James crosses the line between helpful and harmful often. In the process, he builds a father-son relationship that’s unsustainable and unhealthy. One almost sees LaBeouf working out his complicated feelings towards his Dad through acting out all the hard-to-watch scenes.
It helps that LaBeouf has stellar chemistry with Noah Jupe, who cements himself as a child actor to watch. The “Quiet Place” actor gets saddled with the unenviable task of playing a child star we all know. Yet, Jupe manages to both conjure up the spirit of a young LaBeouf while making Otis a singular creation all his own. Whether he’s translating an argument via phone with his parents or exploring a relationship with a girl at his motel complex (played by FKA Twigs), Jupe builds a rich interior life for Otis that exists outside of the confines of the film’s running time.
The dynamite scenes in 1995 are so grand, they make the secondary timeline feel even more superfluous. Lucas Hedges continues to give interesting and dynamic performances that signal a long career. Yet, even his considerable talents can’t make the scenes of an older Otis in court-mandated therapy work. They alternate between being cloying and on-the-nose to completely unnecessary. Jupe perfectly conveys the onset of trauma as he spends more time with James. Meanwhile, LaBeouf’s performance works both as an antagonist and as this meta portrait of what struggles are to come for Otis. This means we don’t need these treacly and redundant scenes of Hedges talking to a therapist. They grind the movie’s lean rhythm to a halt.
At first, it seems like there isn’t much more to say about the cannibalizing nature of the entertainment industry. Is there a need to tell another “Hollywood” story? Luckily, “Honey Boy” sidesteps these conventions and instead presents a really healing personal journey. While we spend time with Otis onset, the majority of the film takes place at James and Otis’ motel, far from the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood. Acting feels less like a straight shot towards fame and fortune and more like a deflating water toy keeping this fractured family afloat. “Honey Boy” rises above expectations and delivers a moving and magical experience.