“Whenever the demons came, we danced with them.” Director Alma Har’el best summed up the complex ambition of making – and also of describing – a moving picture like Honey Boy in one of her interviews. In a way, her words might serve as an artistic guide for anyone willing to work with Shia LeBeouf, her lead actor, Hollywood’s enfant terrible and the writer of this film. Honey Boy is his memoir – an unrestrained, emotionally free-diving and unabashedly expressive snapshot of a time in the life of a boy that became the Shia LeBeouf we know of (and hear of) today. The boy, Otis (played at 12 by the incredible Noah Jupe, and at 30 by the omnipresent Lucas Hedges), represents LeBeouf’s time as a child actor in LA under the influence of his volatile ex-war-veteran father. LeBeouf himself plays this PTSD-afflicted man – a move so LeBeoufian and Freudian that Honey Boy could have either been an unprecedented disaster of a vengeful scribble or an inexplicable genius of a personal essay. It is, however, in the hands of the remarkably perceptive Israeli-American documentary and music-video maker – who is effectively filling in as LeBeouf’s psychiatrist by making his life her own – much of the latter.
Honey Boy is a father-son story like every and no other, fuelled by performances so inherently medicinal and mayhemic in nature that it is impossible not to admire the bleeding heart of an artist who has gone to crippling lengths to “explain” his madness. It is impossible not to watch a bunch of strangers dance with – and embrace, meet with, drink with, grapple with, fight, hate and love – his mental demons. Self-indulgence is usually a lethal term in the movie business, but Honey Boy is self-care and self-preservation elevated into the realms of heady storymaking; it is more than just a passionately interpretative group therapy session. It is LeBeouf telling us that if some of the world’s finest art comes from within, the sight of his gutted insides on the walls of the town that adopted his shattered pieces should serve as nothing less than a modern-era masterpiece.
It begins with Otis doing a stunt on the set of what is presumably the Transformers franchise. A full-frontal explosion syncs with a harness that yanks him into a burning wreck of a truck – an image that uncannily embodies our perception of LeBeouf’s psychological troubles. An evocative opening montage expresses the whirlwind of the life Otis is leading – women, alcohol, drugs, meltdowns, bad interviews – before he is checked into rehab again. It’s in rehab that his life is intercut with moments of young Otis starting out from the seedy sepia-toned confines of an LA motel with a brash father who orders him to “smoke in the bathroom and not in public” lest he is accused of being a shitty dad.
LeBeouf is electric as the repulsive parent but oddly endearing man – at times, he is an endearing parent unable to rise above being a repulsive man – and some of his scenes with Jupe, who is no less than an acting prodigy, are so seeped in reckless vulnerability and toxic control that I found it difficult to contain my pride at being able to watch a person finally in the position to confront his roots through an entire team’s eyes with such an alarming sense of empathy. This is a necessary genre, and one that isn’t appreciated enough by the powers that be. Jupe is LeBeouf in front of LeBeouf; imagine the conversations between the two on set, imagine the exorcism and reflection plaguing the actor’s mind across each shot, imagine the toll of recreating your childhood through the perspective of an irrevocably adult mind. Young Otis’ relationship with a pretty sex worker, another disillusioned resident of the motel, is so tender that I was reminded of the deceptively dreamy atmosphere of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project; the motel looks like a silent neon-lit fairytale when their brokenness unites to become whole under the cover of night.
Maybe the most beguiling aspect of Honey Boy is LeBeouf’s own approach to his role. To the film. And by extension, to the fumes of his life. At one point, Jupe gets emotional while acting in a sitcom scene that has a caring dad. Back at home, as he notices his father lifelessly watch that scene without any irony on a TV set, Jupe recites those lines tearfully, heartbreakingly, to the man in his mind. He wishes he wasn’t such a “grown-up” kid. He is so overwhelmed that he chucks away a cigarette after burning his finger. “What the fuck you crying for? Go pick that up!” the man growls, before going back to the show. Imagine LeBeouf there, laying on the bed on set, wondering if his father actually noticed his son’s tears that night. Wondering if he wanted to, but couldn’t, do anything about it. He plays his father not as a bitter son who has grown up to recognize the damage of those years, but as a man who is genuinely curious about the contradictions of failed parenthood. He discovers his old man without “depicting” him, urging the film to sway between looking like a memory and a belated truth. “I’m gonna make a movie about you,” he tells his dad after rehab. “Make me look good, honey boy” the veteran remarks, half in jest. He is perhaps aware, at this moment, that only one of them went to war as a young man…but neither of them came back.