Who is Shia LaBeouf? I don’t even think Shia LaBeouf himself knows. But it seems like he’s really trying to figure it out.
Over the last decade, no other Hollywood actor has engaged in the level of bizarre public self-analysis that LaBeouf has. From livestreaming himself marathoning all of his movies in an NYC cinema to staging an art exhibit where he sat in a room with a paper bag over his head and let people say whatever they want to him, the child star formerly known as Even Stevens has become an oddly fascinating enigma. At the same time, his run-ins with the law and sporadically awful off-screen behaviour have exposed how troubled and damaged he truly is.
With Honey Boy, written by LaBeouf about his own upbringing and relationship with his father, this self-analysis hits its apex as the actor explicitly tries to reconcile who he has become with how he was raised.
The movie starts amidst the filming of a big-budget action scene, where 22 year-old hotshot Otis (a stand-in for LaBeouf) is hurled away on wires from a big explosion as he shouts “No, no, no, no!”, mimicking Shia’s viral meme-persona immediately. We are then treated to a frenzied opening montage of Otis engaging in the hedonistic Hollywood lifestyle that consumes so many young stars. Playing Otis, Lucas Hedges (who is seemingly everywhere these days) even modulates his voice so that he actually sounds like LaBeouf, further enhancing the meta-nature of this whole endeavour.
Before you know it, Otis is pulled over for a DUI and sent to rehab in lieu of doing jail time. As he’s forced to reckon with his trauma for the first time, Honey Boy shifts to the past, where 12-year old Otis (played by rising young star Noah Jupe) is just starting out on a wacky family comedy show, whilst living with his boorish father James (played by LaBeouf himself, further jumping down the psychological rabbit hole) at a rundown strip motel.
Fresh out of prison and living off of his son’s earnings and connections, James still tries to exert parental authority, despite his penchant for being inappropriate at nearly every turn. Whether it’s causing a scene with the neighbors or telling racist jokes or constantly giving his pre-teen son cigarettes, he’s clearly a reckless hazard as a father. And yet as tumultuous as the relationship becomes, father and son still share a special unshakeable bond.
Coming off of the impressionistic documentary experiments of Bombay Beach and LoveTrue, director Alma Har’el blurs memory and reality, past and present for one of the most unconventional biopics in years. She takes LaBeouf’s confessional script and mythologizes it, resulting in a film that is grandiose in moments, but always raw and real. And LaBeouf pulls no punches in the portrayal of his father, showing the ugliest sides but still managing to find the soul underneath. Say what you will about LaBeouf as a person, but he has always been an actor of surprising complexity. We should hate James and yet we come to understand him.
And through Honey Boy, we also come to understand LaBeouf better than ever before. Does it excuse his bad behaviour? Of course not. LaBeouf is still a privileged actor who has the freedom and money to be able to work through his issues in a feature film and it’s easy to see some viewers writing the film off as a mere vanity project. I wouldn’t even necessarily disagree.
But bad behaviour doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Honey Boy takes an honest look at the real long-term effects of being a child in the entertainment industry. For LaBeouf, it’s like a constant series of therapeutic breakthroughs splashed all over the screen. I hope it was as cathartic for him as it is to watch.