Think less, feel more: ‘Honey Boy’

By Michael Sun
Shia LaBeouf’s disarming autobiographical film-as-therapy dissolves the line between cheap image reparation and authentic mea culpa

Honey Boy

Sometimes, late at night, I am overcome by an inexplicable urge to scroll through an Instagram account called Shia’s Outfits. Its purpose is singular: to document Shia LaBeouf’s many and varied sartorial choices. On display is LaBeouf the lumberjack, rugged and hirsute; LaBeouf the off-duty celebrity, with a fondness for ironic T-shirts; there are even hints of LaBeouf the fashion maverick, ugly Crocs and all.

There is a meditative quality to Shia’s Outfits. It’s easy to get lost in the sameness of LaBeouf’s wardrobe, one utilitarian piece after another, exuding the kind of artlessness that could be mistaken for anonymity were it not for a flash of colour every now and again, or a sock choice so anomalous it feels like a dream. In these moments, when the spell is broken, one might wonder if the nonchalance of LaBeouf’s attire is merely a sham – if the artlessness is art-directed after all.

It’s a suspicion that has plagued LaBeouf his entire career, and rightfully so. It’s hard not to be suspicious of an actor whose off-screen antics have largely eclipsed his on-screen appearances, even counting his much-loved child role as Louis, Even Stevens’ impish scamp, and then his star-making turn as resident Transformers hunk. Overshadowing both of these: the infamous paper bag he donned on a 2014 red carpet, loudly proclaiming his irrelevance; the viral self-help video – “Just do it!” – now immortalised in GIF keyboards everywhere; the intoxicated altercation with police, which landed him in court-ordered rehab. You’d be forgiven for thinking his newfound anonymity was a façade.

But what if it wasn’t? Or rather – what if it didn’t matter at all? That’s what LaBeouf seems to suggest, anyway, in Honey Boy (in cinemas February 27), a film he penned in rehab as therapy-cum-autobiography, exhuming his childhood trauma and offering it as penitence for past wrongdoings. On paper, Honey Boy walks a razor-thin line between gaudy image reparation and authentic confessional – down to the gimmicky premise of LaBeouf playing his own father, named James in the film – but here’s the film’s most wondrous quality: it makes that line dissolve entirely, until we’re no longer concerned about the veracity of its events, or whether they sufficiently justify LaBeouf’s erratic behaviour of the mid 2010s. What’s left is something much more primal. In the spirit of his deadbeat hippie dad, he wants us to think less, and feel more.

To that extent, Honey Boy opens with a blurry, tripped-out haze. A Transformers-esque explosion sends a twenty-something LaBeouf (here renamed Otis, and played by a surly Lucas Hedges) flying backwards on stunt-wire, before blasting through a series of machismo-fuelled film shoots: dark tunnels, fight clubs, drugs, sex, booze. Except, wait – that last part isn’t acting, and his hedonistic excess quickly turns ugly in a drunken tirade drawn from life. The noise screeches to a halt. Otis is bundled to rehab, where he’s diagnosed with PTSD. “From what?” he asks in disbelief, and Honey Boy whips back a decade to the beginnings of his acting career.

LaBeouf aficionados will already know the skeleton of his life story, how he grew up in a poor family and used acting as a means of escape. There is no rags-to-riches tale to be found, though, only a young Otis (Noah Jupe) living with James – LaBeouf’s best impression of his fast-talking father, a recovering alcoholic and a clown in a past life. James is a ticking time-bomb, all pent-up energy and ire from a failed entertainment career, the last dregs of which he projects onto his son. His mania only heightens Otis’s, larger than life and certainly larger than the cramped confines of the seedy motel complex in which they live.

LaBeouf is not kind to his real-life father; he plays James with a frenzied gusto that would be sadistic if he weren’t so terrible. Perhaps LaBeouf’s dad wasn’t quite so crass – perhaps, unlike James, he didn’t call his son a “pencil dick” – but the dynamic here feels painfully lived in, experienced through a young Otis who resents and idolises his father in equal measure. It’s why Otis keeps him around despite his negging; it’s why Otis is happy being the family’s sole breadwinner, his acting income funnelled directly into their living expenses.

All of this has real potential to fall into the trap of cheap absolution. The elements are right there: divorced parents, abusive father, the pungent odour of hangover permeating every scene. It’s the classic School of Hard Knocks curriculum.

That would’ve been an easier movie to make, and also a much worse one. It’s just as well that both LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el have spent the last few years quietly subverting stereotypes, building a curious grammar of the hackneyed and clichéd and making them feel wonderful again. In her previous film, the award-winning documentary Bombay Beach, Har’el rendered the lives of three working-class boys a fever dream of adolescence amid marginalisation; meanwhile, LaBeouf has shed the fame (or infamy) of his 20s for twistier roles as wounded roadsters (2016’s American Honey) and heart-of-gold Huck Finn types (2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon), in films that chip away at the masculinised myth of Americana.

Honey Boy might just be the culmination of that labour, slowly reaching from rehab facilities and tiny motel rooms towards something weirder. As the film flicks between young and adult Otis via flashbacks triggered by exposure therapy, fantasy begins to rupture reality. James invades Otis’s dreams in rehab, a shadowy, monstrous silhouette; the camera, previously shaky and documentarian, takes on a surreal quality as it slithers, alien-like, through the motel pool, awash in a neon glow.

These are the film’s best moments. Sure, there are more affecting ones: a genuinely cathartic scene where adult Otis lets out a blood-curdling scream deep in the woods – exorcism by way of noise, a trick as old as time (or at least punk rock) – as well as plenty of heartrending arguments between a son who needs his father and a father who needs his son’s money. But it’s in Honey Boy’s brief slippages into fantasy that it casts off any remaining airs and graces, lest they be misread as earnestness. Make no mistake: this is more Cinderella Story than Marriage Story, and not just because of the steely similarities between Chad Michael Murray and Lucas Hedges. We aren’t watching Noah Baumbach’s apologetic, self-flagellating brand of autobiography, but a film that indulges its writer’s eccentricities, giving him the space to imagine happier endings and walk away with dignity intact.

So by the time we reach the film’s denouement, we forgive it for being a little overwrought – for giving a young Otis an impossible wisdom when he eventually rebukes James for years of mistreatment. After all, Honey Boy is therapy. It’s LaBeouf finally living out, on screen, the confrontation he could never have with his father in life. Who knew that beneath the craze of celebrity – behind the attention-seeking hijinks and artsy paper-bag stunts — all he needed was a dad?

“Are you being sincere right now or mocking me?” a therapist asks Otis midway through Honey Boy. “Both,” Otis responds, and he may as well be speaking for the film, the rare kind that manages to collapse expectations without collapsing in on itself – not quite LaBeouf’s virtuosic evisceration of his flaws, but something infinitely more charming. Like his penchant for ugly sandals, it’s comforting, even if we know it might be facile.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

Honey Boy

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