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noah jupe in honey boy, the shia labeouf sundance movie

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Shia LaBeouf plays his own abusive father in an autobiographical film that reshapes his career

Honey Boy is like a startling diary we all get to read

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natasha Braier
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

With Honey Boy hitting theaters this week, we’ve resurfaced our review from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where the film first premiered.

There is the Shia LaBeouf we know, the Shia LaBeouf we think we know, the Shia LaBeouf that Shia LaBeouf knows, the Shia LaBeouf that Shia LaBeouf thinks he knows, and the Shia LaBeouf that remains after every other Shia LaBeouf persona is smashed together in a dramatic supercollider. The latter is at the center of Honey Boy, a film that touts a career performance for the actor.

Written by the actor, Honey Boy adapts LaBeouf’s early days as a wunderkind comedian, his skyrocketing ride as a Transformers-driven A-lister, and eventually, his fallout as a tabloid-friendly aggressor, into a lyrical monody. Gliding back and forth between the past and present (in this fictionalized case, 1995 and 2005), these tracks of life become shaded by the verbal and physical abuse hurled at him by his addict father — portrayed in the film by LaBeouf himself.

When we first meet LaBeouf’s screen proxy Otis (played by another young prodigy, A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe), he’s a 12-year-old goofball on the rise, with a steady sitcom gig leading to movie-of-the-week roles. Anyone who grew up on Even Stevens knows this Otis’ “on” personality.

His dad James — a Southern Fried variant of Tom Cruise’s Born on the Fourth of July character — recognizes the potential in his son; once upon a time he was going to be a professional clown, but Vietnam and the bottle shattered those dreams. Now, surviving in one-room cave in a rundown California motel, and cashing his son’s per diem payments for the necessary vices, he runs his son’s life as a vaudevillian bootcamp, and vicariously living through the success.

There are hints of LaBeouf’s other screen characters in James. He’s a motormouth, a wise guy. His arsenal is mostly racist jokes and mime routines. He’s always playing — until he’s not. That’s when the actor commits to releasing the beast within. James is a Jekyll and Hyde role for LaBeouf, and he flips the switch with terrifying ease. A scene in which James meets Otis’ Boys and Girls Club mentor, Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.) starts as a friendly poolside barbecue and ends with violent vulgarity. As with so many sad, power-flexing men, James’ explosions often end in tears, and perhaps the most stomach-turning outcome, a smoke with his son. Honey Boy may feature the most cigarette inhalation by a minor in … ever?

Over the years, LaBeouf has been transparent about the turbulence of life with his actual dad, Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf, who struggled with alcohol and drugs while playing Stage Dad. While it’s unclear how much of Honey Boy directly translates those experiences, the authenticity never comes under question. The situations father and son find themselves in — sock-ball juggling practice with push-up punishments; sleazy on-set encounters with Otis’ castmates; psychologically disarming explanations of why there’s no better life to be found, shouted in the boy’s face — are specific and ugly. The abuse, seen through the eyes of a pre-teen, and staged by documentarian Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach) with absolute restraint, feel like wading through someone’s PTSD. Which is exactly how a therapist describes the memories to a twenty-something Otis in rehab.

In late 2014, after a slow-motion downward spiral that included DUIs, car crashes, bar fights, and several arrests (one after a drunken tirade at the Broadway revival of Cabaret), LaBeouf submitted himself to a rehab program that involved what he would later call “operatic therapy” or in his mind “method acting.” This intense recovery period finds a parallel in Honey Boy, with actor Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) living out the same debaucherous episodes, then collapsing into a court-ordered rehabilitation. Hedges offers another miracle for the film, mimicking LaBeouf’s cadences while rage bubbles up to the surface. Otis’ leveling out involves reliving the past and taking copious notes about the fights he’d have with his father, many of which ended with a slap across the face. There’s no question these verbatim dialogues are the basis for LaBeouf and Jupe’s meatiest scenes.

”It is strange to fetishize your pain and make a product out of it,” LaBeouf said at a Q&A after the Honey Boy Sundance premiere. “And you feel guilty about that. It felt very selfish. This whole thing felt very selfish. I never went into this thinking, ‘Oh, I am going to fucking help people.’ That wasn’t my goal. I was falling apart.”

Honey Boy could collapse under its own meta-weight if it was just a therapeutic exercise, a true indulgence on LaBeouf’s part. But the actor is a storyteller, and his script never treats the trauma of abuse in an exploitive or melodramatic manner. On top of the specific tics of his performance, LaBeouf knows why young Otis would still adore his father, even after the guy’s umpteenth joke about the size of his penis or slam into the wall after a soured script reading. James knows timing, delivery and the performer’s ambition. He does love his son, even if he despises being a child’s employee. Otis would want to hold on to him, even while crying in corner, hoping for it all to end one day.

At the Q&A, LaBeouf said that he and Har’el were “on top of each other by the minute I got out of rehab and we went to work.” Honey Boy has the raw edge of that urgency. To deal with the mental plague of his father’s behavior, that seems to have at least in part driven the actor towards the same mistakes, LaBeouf had to live the other side of the equation.

Who knows if the facade-cracking performance will set him on a new path of prestigious roles or personal performances, but when Honey Boy inevitably reaches theaters later this year, audiences and Hollywood will clamor for it. By inhabiting the worst periods of his life, LaBeouf delivers one of the best performances of the year, one that, contrary to his artistic goal, may even “fucking help people.”

Honey Boy opens in limited release on Nov. 8

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