Release: 13th April 2020
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
When 12-year-old Otis begins to find success as a television star, his abusive, alcoholic father returns and takes over as his guardian, and their contentious relationship is followed over a decade.
Abusive parents seem to be ten-a-penny when it comes to celebrity biographies. It would appear that there is something in having such repugnant figures in one’s life that propel a desire towards the escapist profession of cinema. What is interesting about Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical screenwriting debut, is that for the most part James Lort is not a bad person; he is just a real bastard of a father. Herein lies the greatest tragedy that drives Honey Boy, in that this is not a story about a boy trying to escape his father, but rather a father trying to escape his son, his failures, and all the jealousy and bitterness that comes in-between it all. When LeBeouf referred to this as a “love letter” to his father, he was not being pretentious. Because for all of its heartbreak, there truly is something quite beautiful about Honey Boy.
Told in two fractured timelines of “present” and “past”, LaBeouf’s story is expressed through the conduit of Otis. The film opens with “present” Otis on the set of another action film, a literal puppet on a string, begging “no, no, no” as he is catapulted backwards through a ball of flames. For all intents and purposes this an introduction to the lifestyle of a movie star, but on a more subversive level, there is a deeper narrative about Otis the person being told here. Similarly, the first time we meet “past” Otis, he is in a parallel situation; only this time it is a pie in the face that sends him catapulting. Two halves of the same coin destined to repeat the same act over and again until the end of time. This monotony is something that we learn Otis is rebelling against. Here, both the boy and the man are caught in an endless loop bookended by the literal and ghostly presence of irony incarnate; Otis’ father James; a man who desperately seeks the same thing that Otis simply cannot escape. We gradually come to understand that Otis maintains this life as some semblance of a way to keep hold of his father. If this film hadn’t been called Honey Boy, it could well have been called Escher Boy.
Within this almost nightmarish box of paradoxical guilt, whimsy and regret, Otis plays out a forced attempt at recovery after being arrested for a DUI charge, whilst we also see the damage as it happened to young Otis. Lucas Hedges does a flawless take on LaBeouf, carrying a wideboy bravado also seen in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid-90’s. But as important as Hedges’ contribution to the film is, the story truly lives and dies with the interplay between LaBeouf (seen here playing his father, James), and A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe as young Otis. There is an agonising back and forth between both James and young Otis that flits between the tender and torturous. One scene in particular, where Noah woefully dreams his father would impart loving words ala a scene Otis had acted out earlier that day, is likely to destroy the hardest of hearts. There is very little sense of self-pity here, as LaBeouf’s script manages to balance the odds of portraying his father as a frustrated loser fuelled by envy and guilt; while failing to connect or even truly love a son he is “employed” to spend time with. It is a horrific reality to live in but seeing one’s parents as employees or one’s child as an employer, is a mighty head mess that provide a tremendous insight into the agony of childhood celebrity.
Alma Har’el is a relative unknown, but her feminine flair encompasses Honey Boy with a longing and warmth that may well have been lacking in the hands of a male director. She occasionally falls into the American Independent Cinema trap of lighting some night scenes with fluorescents and verité “humanity” (see young Otis and ‘Shy Girl’ moments), that verge on pushing the narrative into more conceited moments. But for the most part, she and cinematographer Natasha Braier create a world that feels intimate and claustrophobic yet oddly comforting. Even the restraint shown in acts of violence create more tension than any physical act could ever generate.
Honey Boy is a complicated package in that it demonises a clearly emotionally abusive father, yet somehow carries with it the nostalgia and small moments of happiness that can be found in most childhood memories. This is all helped along tremendously by Alex Somers’ pots and pans sentimentality of a soundtrack. Here is a film that should help you hold you loved ones a little closer, and maybe, just maybe, give ol’ LaBeouf a little bit of slack.
NOTE: Honey Boy is available on digital download from 30th March 2020, and be purchased on blu-ray exclusively from HMV from 13th April 2020.
Film Grade: B
Just a sprinkling of EPKs, most of which contain many of the same soundbites. This is not the sort of production one would expect much from in the way of bonus material.
Special Features Grade: D+
Sombre. Sweet. And everything in-between. Honey Boy is a welcome insight into the life of a child actor.