Between his Disney Channel days, his Transformers days, and his bizarre experimental days, Shia LaBeouf is admittedly a pretty easy target for criticism. For all his run-ins with the law and “Just Do It” videos, though, LaBeouf can be a talented actor with untapped potential. That talent and potential are on full display in Honey Boy, a drama that’s partly autobiographical, partly therapeutic, and mostly engaging. LaBeouf both wrote and stars in the film, although he doesn’t play a version of himself. Rather, he portrays a version of his father. LaBeouf has been impersonating his dad since his parents got divorced and that impression has accumulated to his best performance.
Young Noah Jupe from A Quiet Place and Ford v Ferrari is equally impressive as Otis Lort, a child star who’s obviously supposed to represent LaBeouf during the Even Stevens era. Honey Boy is truly a showcase for LaBeouf as Otis’ deadbeat stage dad, James. Like LaBeouf’s real-life dad, James is an alcoholic, a hippie, a drug addict, and a Vietnam veteran. When James isn’t micromanaging Otis on set, he’s either dragging his son to AA meetings or yelling at his estranged wife over the phone. Natasha Lyonne plays Otis’ mother, although she’s designated to an off-screen cameo. James frequently subjects Otis to emotional and even physical abuse, which is also true to real-life. Apparently, what we see isn’t in the film isn’t even the worst of it, as LaBeouf’s father supposedly pulled a gun on him due to a Vietnam flashback.
As tensions continue to grow between them, Otis begins to question if he can live with James unless he makes some changes. On one hand, Otis holds all the cards here, as he’s the one bringing in the money and giving his dad a job. On the other hand, James is still the father, one of the highest authority’s in any child’s eyes. Deep down he may know that he’s a loser, but James would much sooner slap his son than treat him like his boss, or even as an equal. While this dynamic is clearly modeled after LaBeouf’s relationship with his father, it just as easily could apply to other kids who grew up in showbiz, such as Macaulay Culkin. Where most child stars inevitably fade into obscurity, however, LaBeouf/Otis still has time to get his act together.
The scenes involving Otis’ youth have an brutal honesty to them, calling The Florida Project to mind. What prevents Honey Boy from being in the same league as that film are the modern-day scenes in which a grown-up Otis is played by Lucas Hedges. Seeing how LaBeouf wrote the screenplay in rehab, it only makes sense that Otis ends up at a facility on the heels of spiraling out of control. While Hedges gives a good performance as per usual, these scenes feel by the numbers and add little to the “celebrity in rehab” trope we’ve been seeing of a lot of lately. Maybe it’d be interesting if the rehab scenes did more to flesh out Otis’ relationship with his father, but James doesn’t reenter the picture until the end.
In this sense, Honey Boy is like two different movies that’ve been cut from the same cloth. One film is heartbreaking and gripping, especially if you’re familiar with the figure it’s based on. The other movie is standard and easily forgettable. Thankfully, much more emphasis is put on Otis’ youth, allowing Jupe and LaBeouf to shine. LaBeouf already gave one winning performance earlier this year in The Peanut Butter Falcon. With Honey Boy, he’s officially riding the comeback train.