Honey Boy is a decent movie as a viewer, but it’s not for viewers. It’s for Shia LaBeouf.
Honey Boy is LaBeouf’s autobiographical retelling of his childhood stardom and abuse at the hands of his father, Jeffrey, and his troubled adulthood as he developed into a leading man who struggled with alcoholism and was often arrested for public drunkenness. It tells this story through fictional child star Otis Lort (Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges) straddled between 1995 and 2005, which roughly correspond to LaBeouf’s time on Even Stevens at the turn of the century through his second stint in rehab in 2017, which is when he started writing the film. During the scenes set in the ‘00s, a rage-filled older Lort goes through court-ordered rehab. During the scenes set in the ‘90s, a pre-teen Lort is terrorized by his father, James (LaBeouf, who also writes and produces).
No one but LaBeouf himself really knows how much of the movie is real. Here’s a firm breakdown of what’s public knowledge.
Honey Boy isn’t just therapeutic in nature, it’s therapeutic in literal fact. This is the culmination of a project LaBeouf started in rehab. The type of confessional people normally symbolically burn, he’s put to film. It’s in line with his long tradition of seemingly humiliating, highly publicized performance art projects. I try not to judge how people process their trauma, but this is certainly more traditionally constructive than what he’d been doing.
As a film, Honey Boy is all about combinations. Its opening montage on Lort in his 20s, the film’s strongest point, flashes like lightning between moments on set and moments of his life. This montage is genuinely confusing, and seems meant to be, flashing from a romantic scene to what appears to be a real date with the same actress or from a scene with police involved and a genuine arrest. Lort doesn’t know the difference between work and reality, and neither do we.
The duration of the runtime seems mostly meant to echo this sequence, but instead of blurring the line between Lort’s fantasy and his reality, it blurs the lines between Honey Boy’s principal characters. Lort’s younger self becomes his older self through montage. His younger self tries to become what he admires about his father through emulation, to no avail. His older self threatens to become the worst version of his father through drinking.
As Lort turns into his father idiomatically, Shia turns into his father literally, having cast himself in the role of his own tormentor. In the role, LaBeouf demonstrates his always-obvious talent while reenacting his demons. James Lort is always always always talking, much of it in a raised voice, much of it abusive, all of it employing LaBeouf’s own signature talent for motor-mouthed aggression. Did he really pick it up from his father, as the film implies? It would be a great and terrible irony, if so. Where Honey Boy keeps most other scenes short, scenes where James is talking to Otis are left exhaustingly long, impressing on the audience Otis’ feeling that he cannot escape.
Honey Boy represents the conclusion of LaBeouf’s long string of performance art pieces, or at least brings it to the screens where it all started and may or may not belong. It seems strange, like all of his work, but it’s certainly a more intuitive and constructive outlet. Hopefully this brings him some peace.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.