Honey Boy takes the classic daddy-issues trope to the next level through a fictionalized portrayal of Shia LaBeouf’s childhood fame amidst a traumatic home life led by his abusive father.
After a federal arrest, LaBeouf is court-mandated to receive inpatient therapy for PTSD. Within the supportive halls of the mental institution, LaBeouf confronts his trauma through writing what became the screenplay for Honey Boy. Collaborating with the film’s director, Alma Har’el (LoveTrue), LaBeouf delivers what he described in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres as a “love letter” to his distraught father.
Against his friends’ and mentor’s best wishes, LaBeouf plays the role of his father by the pseudonym of James Lort, an ex-rodeo clown and Vietnam War veteran. The performance is somehow both painful and endearing to watch.
The film highlights two stages of LaBeouf’s youth through his self-adapted character, Otis Lort: Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) takes on the role of twelve-year-old, mop-haired Otis, while Lucas Hedges (Ben Is Back) plays a distressed, twenty-two-year-old Otis.
It opens with a spectacle of the not-so-glamorous reality of working on a Hollywood set, shifting between young Otis enduring a pie to the face on the unstated set of Disney Channel’s Even Stevens, and twenty-something Otis shot through the air by an explosion on the implied set of Transformers. Flashes of binge drinking, smoking who-knows-what, and sex bring the magical, movie-making scenes to a close, cutting to Hedge’s character under the influence, in the back of a police car, unapologetically yelling, “Why am I here?!”
The majority of Honey Boy takes place in an extended-stay motel in Culver City. The father and son live in a studio room the size of a closet where they sleep five feet apart in neighboring twin beds. The pair exchange sometimes-humorous and sometimes-excruciating dialogue in their motel room, the community laundry room, and the public pool.
LaBeouf gives his father’s character, James Lort, multiple dimensions through a complicated mix of alcohol and substance abuse, resentment of his young son’s fame, guilt from his past felony charges, and the resounding desire to simply be a good father.
Young Otis struggles between playing a role within a loving, Disney-produced family by day and the broken home he returns to every night.
Sickening parallels are drawn between the older, substance-abusing Otis and pre-teen Otis, who is rewarded with cigarettes from his father when he successfully conjures a laugh while practicing a scene.
Scattered throughout the film are moments from the mental institution where Otis undergoes exposure therapy to treat his PTSD. The clock finally begins to tick in Otis’ head as he slowly but surely lets his guard down, thanks to one-on-one therapy sessions, hug-circle time between his fellow patients in the institution’s pool, and the relationship with his roommate-turned-friend, who ironically sleeps five feet away from Otis in a neighboring twin bed.
As exposure therapy begins to take effect, Otis starts writing down conversations between his younger self and his father, thus birthing the original concept for Honey Boy.
The film makes a meta-shift when older Otis sees his father for the first time in several years, right back in their motel’s parking lot, where he explains his idea for a somewhat-autobiographical film, to which his father earnestly replies, “Make me look good, honey boy.”
The depiction of the figure who made Shia LeBeouf who he is today, for better or for worse, illustrates an apparent healing for LaBeouf through tackling the role of his father, leaving those who watch Honey Boy with a sense of hope within the desperation of an abusive childhood.