By Caleb Carter
James Lort is a former alcoholic. His rude, nasal coaching playfully bullies his child actor son, Otis, but he doesn’t know where to draw the line, is easily hurt and speaks in a string of self-constructed platitudes: “You know what the white spot is in the middle of chicken shit? More chicken shit!”. A bubble blown up around himself that acts also as a fragile suit of armour to guard boiling insecurities from the other inhabitants of the dusty motel in which he resides. James is a former clown and acts like one, grasping at the attention of his young son yet envious of his success: he claims to be the source of Otis’ ambition but in reality Otis’ stint on a long running children’s show is keeping them both financially afloat.
At the patchwork heart of Honey Boy is a tale of healing. In a strangely Kaufman-esque framing: Lucas Hedges’ bridled, older Otis is splitting at disillusioned seams run wet with liquor and he is put recalcitrant through rehabilitation to write about the younger Otis Lort (a trailblazing young performance from newcomer Noah Jupe) whose child actor career is laced inextricably with the vices of and complex relationships with his father. That’s James Lort, played by real life Otis Lort (and screenwriter of Honey Boy), Shia LaBeouf. I’m being convoluted… it’s a roundabout way of saying that Shia LaBeouf plays his own father in a film penned autobiographically by himself as part of his own recovery. But I do this to convey that Honey Boy is far more than just a superficial reiteration of tabloids from the other side of stardom, it is itself the very healing process that the film depicts: transforming filmmaking from a passive, financial job into an act of searching, then confrontation, then, ultimately, salvation. It is refreshing, brave, gracefully cathartic: art with a purpose, felt in the delivery of every line and every organic cut. There is a heart being exposed to cold honesty here and the process continues through the discoveries of performance; to discover your own father at the root of your unresolved trauma is one thing, to play him is courageously another.
The beauty of the film lies in LaBeouf’s depiction of his own father. It is kind. Honey Boy is not a tale of anger and recollection, but one of reconnection. LaBeouf’s writing and performance breathes an unhinged empathy, sidestepping exposés and resentful impersonation; instead he and Alma Har’el produce a cyclical séance to the past, channelling a troubled man that the actor knows better than any other. LaBeouf, it is clear, finds kinship in his father, from one haunted spirit to another.
And Har’el’s direction fits this like a glove. Like orchestrating Russian dolls, she charts an addicted man’s memory of his inner, troubled child self with crackling grace and the film follows less of a strict narrative structure than a reflection of cognitive behavioral therapy: memories crystallize in cyclical trauma then are re-contextualised (Otis in Transformers on wires, thrown back by an explosion; cut to Otis 10 years prior in Even Stevens, on wires, thrown back by a pie to the face). Har’el acts as a seamstress, threading moments of a troubled life together to form a garment just breezy enough for forgiveness.
Honey Boy’s meta-narrative is inescapable, one half is the writing process of the other half. LaBeouf strives to understand it and we wonder if he has finally dissected the platitudes his father would use over and over again. You look in the mirror and see chicken shit, dig to the white spot in the middle and you find that it was just you, this whole time. Your life reclaimed. LaBeouf does this and finds that his dad was right, in a way: “I’m your cheerleader, Honey Boy”.