Honey Boy (2019)

Directed by Alma Ha’rel; Written by Shia LaBeouf

There’s a lot of pent-up emotion, scorekeeping, and closeted demons bursting out of Honey Boy, a film based on Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical script that details a child actor’s complicated and traumatic relationship with his father. Have you ever felt like you left some things unsaid with a parent of yours and want to have that talk, even if only vicariously? Here’s a film for you. 

It features wet eyes, pained looks, veins suring in anger, shouting matches, abuse of every kind – the damage done to a man when he is a child is a debt repaid with exponential interest, as the quiet, modest, but dedicated boy actor Otis played by Noah Jupe becomes the thrashing star (Lucas Hedges, volcanic in his misery). 

Cutting between the troubled present and the troubling past, director Ha’rel wants to dissect trauma and draw red lines through time. For every instance of neglect, a man wary of others takes shape; a callous word from his father festers and later blooms as ragings fits in therapy sessions. Prepare yourself for emotions, good and bad, but mostly bad, and men who who bristles and hisses at outreached open hands.

Ha’rel and LaBeouf want Honey Boy to investigate a relationship that made a star out of a boy and a wounded animal out of a man, and while Otis, in present and past, is the focus, both filmmakers can’t seem to get over their fascination with the father, also played by LaBeouf. They want to explain him, to explore him and lay him bare, so much so that at times it feels like the wishful thinking of someone who looks back with some regret and wishes they could have had some of these conversations then. It’s therefore a shame when the source of all this hurt is a rather uninteresting, albeit incredibly bitter waste of a man, whose only redeeming feature is his ambition for his son. 

So much energy is invested in the two central men that the characters orbiting are made two-dimensional shadows, most notable FKA Twigs as the girl from across the motel parking lot, who’s simply there to be a soft spot of tenderness and the archetype against which Otis will misinterpret all his future relationships. 

Honey Boy is not a finessed, and insightful piece of work, but what it lacks in thought it makes up for in energy, ambition, and application of those two. There are great scenes in here, fraught with pain and catharsis and Ha’rel’s visual treatment leaves nothing to be desired, making the most of what’s there and Honey Boy is a treat for the senses even if scenes of squalor are dressed up in indie-glittering lens flares and neon lights. 

Like the early outings of talented child actors, Honey Boy is not an arrival, but a promise of better things to come – in the case of Jupe and Ha’rel in particular.

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