Movie Review – Honey Boy
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Shia LaBeouf writes and stars in this autobiographical film that explores his abusive childhood and his alcoholism, which he experienced in his 20’s, leading to his arrest and placement into rehab. Most of this film, however, turns out to be a portrait of LaBeouf’s father, who was a Vietnam War veteran and a drug addict who ended up passing a lot of trauma onto his son. The son as a child and as a 20-something has to cope and reconcile with who his father was. The father also has to recognize what he’s doing and how toxic he’s being. LaBeouf gets to dive deep into his own and his father’s psyches or at least see them come to life, as here he plays the role of the father, meaning he’s playing his own dad.
It’s not often that an actor will portray his or her own parent. It has happened a few times within the past 10 years. Christopher Wallace, Jr. played his father, the rap star, in Notorious (2009). O’Shea Jackson, Jr. played his father, another rap star, in Straight Outta Compton (2015). Melissa Rivers played her mother, the famous comedienne, in Joy (2015). If you go back a little further than a decade, Mario Van Peebles played his father, a filmmaker, in Baadasssss! (2004). Most of those films have the actors lovingly portraying their parent in tribute and practical celebration. It’s not to say that LaBeouf is not loving of his father. Whereas the actors in those aforementioned films attempt to minimize the negative portrayal of their parent, LaBeouf is purposefully trying to expose the dark and troubled side of his dad. The aforementioned actors wanted to avoid showing the warts. Here, LaBeouf wants the warts and all.
Noah Jupe (Ford v Ferrari and A Quiet Place) co-stars as Otis Lort, a 12-year-old boy living in Los Angeles in 1995. He’s a child actor who seems to be employed on a TV show. It’s not exactly clear what the TV show is about, yet it appears to be some kind of comedy, possibly a sitcom. I’m not sure the show is specifically named, though it could be a movie. It’s never truly clear. All we see is Otis going to a studio where there are sound stages. Inside, he shoots various scenes. We never truly see the output of which. The first scene we see him film is where he gets a custard pie thrown in his face. He seems very smart and very observant. He hasn’t hit puberty yet, but in a lot of ways he’s the parent to his father, James or Jim, played by LaBeouf.
The irony isn’t lost that while LaBeouf is playing his real-life father or a fictional character that was inspired or is based on his father, at the same time, the actor playing a version of LaBeouf at a prepubescent age is also in a sense playing the role of the parent. The reason that Otis is like the father to his father is due to Jim being an addict and not having a job. Jim would probably argue his job is managing his son’s acting career and in general taking care of him, but, at present, they live in a crappy motel off the highway. The money that Otis makes on acting isn’t enough to support a proper apartment or else Jim is squandering that money in ways that we don’t see. Jim drives his son by motorcycle to work. He makes sure that child labor laws are being enforced when it comes to his son and he does run lines with Otis, but it’s hard to make the argument that he’s taking good care of his son.
Otis will get phone calls from his mother, but it’s never really explained why Otis isn’t living with her or why she isn’t more involved or more concerned of her son’s living conditions. It’s obvious that Jim doesn’t have a job and has to attend addiction meetings. Yet, it’s understandable why the mother wanted to put some distance between herself and Jim, possibly not wanting to fight him on custody. Jim is a military veteran, but he also seemed to have some interest in acting or the entertainment industry. There are images of him dressed as a clown, either a circus clown or a rodeo clown. We also see him perform an act with a live chicken. Whatever entertainment career he had been pursuing failed and now he’s latching onto his son, trying to live vicariously through Otis, which is perhaps frustrating for him. Otis’ mother probably realizes this and doesn’t want to antagonize him on it.
Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird and Manchester By the Sea) also co-stars as Otis Lort, the 22-year-old version of the character played by Jupe. In his early 20’s, Otis has become a more successful actor, doing big blockbuster projects, but the pressure of it and his alcoholism causes him to get arrested and put into rehab. He’s very much like his father in that he’s manic, almost incapable of sitting still, pacing back-and-forth, constantly moving and talking, trying to talk his way out of things, as well as in-your-face aggression at times, somewhat belligerent. He’s not as brutally honest when sober as his father, but, in rehab he has to learn coping mechanisms for his aggressive behavior, as well as confront the source or cause of his addiction and his diagnosis of PTSD.
Hedges recently played a young addict in the amazing Ben Is Back (2018). This film doesn’t really give him that much to do, aside from a fairly good imitation of LaBeouf. If Hedges’ character were the same in both films, then this one could be seen as a sequel or possibly a prequel to Ben Is Back, as we see him resist the therapy sessions and eschew most of the more self-love, calming techniques until he eventually embraces the more visceral and cathartic techniques. Unfortunately, the film never gives enough of Otis at 22 to make us truly feel that arc. Hedges is one of the youngest Oscar nominees alive right now. He’s of course amazing in the role. I just wish we got more of him, but there are scenes that figuratively and literally strip him bare, and those were appreciated.
Directed by Alma Har’el, it’s good that a woman is at the helm of this project, but it’s weird that there is a lack of female characters with any depth to them. As pointed out, Otis’ mother is absent. The only other female character is a woman who lives at the same crappy motel or rundown residence where Otis and his father live. All we know about her is that she appears to be a sex worker. She isn’t given a name, but she’s played by FKA Twigs, an up-and-coming pop star. But we get nothing else about her to make her a substantive character in this narrative.
Rated R for pervasive language, drug use and some sexual material.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.
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