Cinema is replete with films portraying the sometimes tricky relationships of sons with their fathers, and the best can offer either universal insight or paint a specific portrait. HONEY BOY, written by Shia LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el, hews closely to LaBeouf’s own relationship with his father. The collection of performances draw upon each other to create a rounded film full of ideas about the impact of rich celebrity on youth, the paternal strain developed, and the lasting effects of both.
The film takes place across dual timelines, with the first following 22-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges) working as an actor in high-value productions. He is required to attend rehab after a car accident in 2005, and his therapy there (following a PTSD diagnosis) draws upon memories of the other timeline, which focuses upon Otis at 12-years-old (Noah Jupe) finding his way as a child actor. In 1995, the younger Otis employs his father, James, as his chaperone, living with him in a motel. James (Shia LaBeouf) – a former rodeo clown – is holding on delicately to four years of sobriety, with a lack of prospects partnering his unpredictable temper and patience.
The twin performances of Hedges and Jupe as Otis are the heart of the film. Each actor gives their performance tangible emotion, and Jupe shows he can bring subtlety to the father-son dynamic in a way he wasn’t afforded by the recent FORD V FERRARI. The strength of these performances lies in the manner in which they harmonise with one another. Without much of a physical resemblance, the fact each of Hedges and Jupe flow into each other neatly – with attention to detail in tone and body language – speaks to the quality of both the performances and Har’el’s direction. HONEY BOY is Har’el’s first narrative feature, but her experience behind the camera for documentaries comes through in the observational nature of the camera, particularly during the 1995 segments. The performances she has elicited from the cast allow them to speak for themselves, to an extent, with overbearing stylisation.
Where the film is a little rougher is in the script. The film’s trajectory bears the hallmarks of the meta-story upon which it is based, the script having been written as part of LaBeouf’s own rehab process. As a result, there is a cathartic element in the final product that perhaps removes some of the grey areas, within which one might have found greater relatability. The film trades ambiguity for the characters’ emotional resolution (something which LaBeouf, presumably, experienced himself in reality). That catharsis is evident in LaBeouf’s performance of the character based on his own father. It is a warts-and-all performance, that clearly demonstrates the character’s vices but not without some empathy for his emotional state. Understanding is abundant, but excuses are not.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t really tip over into sentimentally convenient resolution, even if it leans towards it: the scenes have been portrayed with enough authentic pain to prevent that. Although the film swaps some universality and greater possibilities for emotional resolution, HONEY BOY completes a touching and rounded portrait of its writer’s own difficult journey towards closure.