"The only thing my father gave me that was of any value to me is pain. Now, you want to take that away from me?"
Honey Boy talks of pain. An overflowing pit of hurt, which has consumed a person completely and now is for the audience to witness. However, unlike the popular notion about such films, Honey Boy never romanticises it. Instead, it gives you a zoomed-out view to show you how it feels to be on the receiving end.
The movie is about Shia LaBeouf's childhood. It gives us an inside look at what it is like to be just a twelve-year-old kid wanting love but being rejected by one's own father. Shia's father is a war veteran, and, like many such veterans, his life has really little left for him to do but bask in his bygone glory. However, apart from being war veteran, he was a felon too and a sex offender to a minor. He was separated from Shia's mother. Otis, the name given to Shia in this film, stays with his father in a shabby LA motel and is the only earning member of this family. Otis is ready to fill up all the shortcomings of his father, by working as a child actor and being a responsible person taking care of their needs. All the little child has ever wanted was some love in return. A small recognition of his efforts would have made his hard work legitimate for him. However, James, Otis's father doesn't give him that. Instead, he is downright jealous of the success his son has achieved by working in sitcoms like Even Stevens. He doesn't like other grownups taking care of his son the way he should, and misbehaves with them to the point where they stop showing interest in Otis. One would expect him to love Otis at least then, but he doesn't. He keeps pushing him, but Otis continues to find middle grounds and work through.
We could have hated James enormously for being this cold with a boy who is ready to do anything to get some compassion. However, Shia LaBeouf doesn't let you do so by playing his own dad. Firstly, it is beyond overwhelming to think Shia is playing his dad in a movie made to show us his own aches, but what he does with the character makes me purely reverent of his acting skills. Through Shia's eyes, we feel James's hurt as well. James's claustrophobia makes you feel bad for him. When he tells Otis, "You come from a line of alcoholics" and "they were hurting and so they drank because they didn't know what to do", you see how he is finally letting Otis in his head.
It makes you cry to see Otis find his solace in strangers, sometimes in a sex worker, living in their motel, or in the benevolent on-screen dad he had. The scenes of Otis with that girl are so raw and pure you can't look away. We see her kiss Otis gently on his cheeks, and he kisses her back on her eyes. We see them softly caressing their faces as if to balm all the pain they were going through. There is a river full of hurt, bleeding emotions, grudges between both of them, but at the core of it, they heal each other. It is therapeutic to watch them do so, as you feel healed too.
Honey Boy, as a movie, fulfills that goal as well. It is surely a heavily personal film, and was purely made by Shia as part of his exposure therapy in a state-funded rehab. However, the hurt showcased by Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe while playing James and Otis respectively, and in some scenes by Lucas Hedges playing the grownup Otis who was brought to a rehabilitation centre after he was found intoxicated in the middle of a street, unites us all. We might not have had a tumultuous childhood like Otis did, but we share his pain in some way or the other. The spectacular director, Alma Har'el, ensures that.