Directed by Alma Har’el
Honey Boy feels like a rough draft, and maybe, based on the intensely personal story, it was always going to be. It’s the story about a child actor whose father’s abuse gives him PTSD. That actor, Otis, is a stand in for Shia LaBeouf who plays Otis’ father, in a very literal sense playing his own father.
James Lort (LaBeouf) looks like LaBeouf’s own father, which I wouldn’t have known had the credits not included a series of photos from LaBeouf’s childhood. He is unpredictable, an alcoholic and sex offender, who both depends on and resents his successful 12 year-old son (played by Noah Jupe).
The story splits time between 12 year-old Otis and 22 year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges), who is in court-mandated rehab after a drunken car crash. It’s there that he is told he suffers from PTSD related to his dad, which he doesn’t understand. Then he is given a series of steps through which he begins to confront his father, at least the memory of his father.
The film itself is a clear extension of these steps. Near the end of the film we see Otis writing dialogue that we’ve already heard in the film, then he acts it out to his therapist, then tells a version of his father seen in a dream that he’s going to make a movie about him, and he did.
The real story here and the ways it is so nakedly presented onscreen is something I’ve never quite seen before. It’s sincere and honest, ugly and riveting. At times it feels like a staged performance, a two-hander that you could watch in a black box theatre with no set decoration needed. It’s just two people reckoning with each other and, in the case of the father, himself.
And all the performances here are so, so good. Maybe they border on showy, but they feel unblocked by ego or restrained by self-conscious blocking, line readings and choreography. It feels fluid and free and, as with the film as a whole, messy.
The parts where the film slows down, I’d argue, is when it tries too hard to be a movie. There are two sequences in particular, montages within which we see Otis, as both 12 and 22, recovering. As a 12 year-old he has a kind and simple friendship with a prostitute, which is both beautiful and confounding considering what has already been implied. It’s both wholesome and unnerving.
In the other sequence we see Otis in rehab during the process of healing. But it’s never that we see the specific steps to self-healing, rather it’s told to us just because he looks happy, and the music is cheerful. It’s a short cut that doesn’t quite vibe with the messy, detailed honesty of the more traumatic moments of the story.
So the film, as a document of trauma, recovery and the never-ending process of sobriety is rather amazing. But the film as a film, feels a little hollow near the end. It requires the context of the true story behind the film to rise to that next level. And whether that matters, who knows, because watching this movie you’re probably aware of the sweat, blood and tears poured into it.