Autobiographical films are like a form of artistic therapy, and often their value is dependent on the audience’s ability to connect their own personal experiences with those being portrayed. Some are engrossing, like this year’s The Souvenir, where Joanna Hogg presents semi-disconnected moments of her life that play out like an elliptical collage of memories. We peer into her recollections like an omniscient voyeur and gain an understanding of her perspective on her past. Hogg uses the medium in interesting ways to tell her story; same for Sarah Polly with her excellent documentary Stories We Tell. In other cases, they can be blatantly self-indulgent, where the audience is subjected to either a hyper-specific or extremely common experience with the assumption that because it happened to the filmmaker, it’s intrinsically compelling to watch. Honey Boy falls into a category of its own somewhere between the two, but what’s most surprising is that for a film with such an interesting and unique story behind production, the actual result is rather conventional.
Honey Boy was written by Shia LaBeouf, and it focuses on his tumultuous relationship with his domineering and abusive father. It opens in 2005 with Otis (Lucas Hedges) being forced into rehab after being arrested for a drunken car accident. He stubbornly resists the facility’s attempts to help, but when he’s told he shows signs of PTSD, he internally revisits his past trauma at the hands of his father. The film flashes back to 1995, where the bulk of the narrative takes place, showing a brief period where Otis (Noah Jupe) and his father (Shia LaBeouf) live together in a hotel room as Otis works on an Even Stevens-esque television show. To call his father irresponsible is putting it mildly. Even though he’s a recovered alcoholic, his resentment toward his son takes the form of verbal and physical abuse which has clearly made a deep impression on Otis.
Their working relationship adds an interesting element to the film – Otis employs his father, and though he doesn’t hang it over his father’s head, it creates a complicated emotional dynamic between the two. Having Shia LaBeouf essentially play his own father also adds an interesting meta layer to the film, but the material is fairly standard otherwise. Abusive fathers are so prominent in film and Honey Boy doesn’t really cover any new ground, so while those who see their own pain in Otis will likely have a personal emotional response, the film isn’t really distinguished from the majority of bad dad movies.
Where Honey Boy undoubtedly shines is in the performances. Though the material isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe are electrifying to watch. The scenes between the two are painful and gut-wrenching. LaBeouf plays every moment like a ticking time bomb and it makes even the calmer scenes distressing to watch. Jupe gives one of the best recent performances from a young actor, playing a young Otis with a distinct complexity the role requires – we sense his immense love and admiration of his father, despite the horrific abuse he suffers. Otis is already thrust into a position he’s not equipped to handle just by being a child star, so it’s even more heartbreaking that his main source of support both personally and professionally is a disdainful and overbearing deadbeat.
Alma Har’el lends a compassionate eye to the somewhat generic writing, making the disturbing scenes palatable and dulling the sharply saccharine moments so it never feels like a Lifetime movie. As a debut narrative feature, it’s impressive, especially her work with actors. There’s one astounding scene where Otis is forced to act as an intermediary during an argument with his parents, relaying each message in character as either his mother or father, and the energy is staggering. Har’el even gets a fantastic performance out of Lucas Hedges, who I’ve often found lacking. He plays Otis as combative, but complex and emotionally conflicted, and thankfully he avoids doing an outright impression of LaBeouf. LaBeouf, on the other hand, drifts into exaggerated and melodramatic (as he often does), but completely sells the decades of age difference, which is a feat in and of itself.
Honey Boy is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts, though. The major element setting this apart from the bulk of coming-of-age films about abusive parents is Shia LaBeouf’s involvement, and that alone doesn’t improve the uninspired writing. I was particularly let down by the ending, which offers a cheap and empty resolution that lacks the emotional catharsis the film had seemed to build up to and feels strangely disingenuous. The performances and direction elevate it, but Honey Boy still feels like little more than LaBeouf exercising his demons onscreen.