Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf's Attempt to Lay Down the Grudge
Honey Boy, director Alma Har’el’s chronicle of Shia LaBeouf’s tribulations as a child actor with an abusive father, is an unbearably painful movie. It’s clearly painful for Shia, both the actor and the person. It must be painful for Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, both as actors and as the different versions of Shia that they play. And it’s certainly painful for audience members, who aren’t given a single anchor to latch onto – to help them feel steady – throughout this careening trip through the life, times, and mind of one of our generation’s most notorious performers.But that’s why it works. The raw pain that pervades every moment in Honey Boy is what makes it a singular work of art, but it’s also what makes it both unbearable and repulsive at times. In short: it’s messy. Written by Shia LaBoeuf, the former child star and adult tornado, Honey Boy fractures in two, alternating between timelines: in one, Shia plays his own father, while the scary stellar Jupe plays a young Shia, just finding success as an actor. In another, Hedges portrays Shia at the height of both his fame and his volatility. Needless to say, it’s an interpersonal clusterfuck. Honey Boy opens with a flash-bang: 22-year-old Shia LaBeouf, played by Hedges, in the midst of filming Transformers 2, finds that his self-destructive tendencies lead to a DUI-turned-car-wreck. After tossing him into a rehab program, the film jumps back to Shia’s childhood, following the steady rise of his acting career under the looming shadow of his alcoholic and abusive father. Past echoes present echoes past, and Honey Boy wants you to know it. The film emphasizes the various ways that young Shia seeks out affection and guidance – the usual territories of a father – in the absence of a loving dad. First, it’s a Big Brother program. Next, it’s his TV dad. Finally, it’s an older girl in the long-term motel where Shia lives with his father. This trail of failed stand-ins only emphasizes the permanence of his real father’s emotional absence: and so, cut to 15 years later, and it’s Shia who is addicted to alcohol, seeking refuge in counting the days he’s been sober. If it seems like Honey Boy is setting you up to watch Shia exorcise his demons in real-time, well, clearly you don’t know Shia. Honey Boy has been compared to expensive therapy – and this is certainly a form of that. Instead of verbalizing past traumas, the movie allows real-life Shia to visualize them and create his own narrative about what they mean. But where so many therapy patients verbalize to confront and move past their demons, Honey Boy is an effort to allow Shia to get to know his demons, to spend time with them, to use them in furtherance of art. Underlining this point is a simple, brutal question that 22-year-old Shia asks his court-appointed therapist late in Honey Boy: “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain, and you want to take that away?” Like everything in Honey Boy, Shia’s relationship with his father isn’t clear cut. He draws from his trauma, and his performance treats his father with compassion — just as the film’s humanity comes in its refusal to judge any of its characters. And so, young Shia constantly tries to emulate his father, looking up to him, seeking to be close with him. Jupe somehow conveys the dichotomous, dissonant feelings of having an emotionally and physically abusive father who nonetheless cares. Honey Boy carries itself with a visual fluidity, constantly shifting between emotional and temporal states with little regard for boundaries. The choice intelligently highlights the cyclical nature of alcoholism and family, but it also underlines an important point, made by Shia’s dad toward the end of the movie. “Gotta lay the grudge down,” he tells his son, otherwise the cycle will never stop. In the end, that’s what Honey Boy is about – and more importantly, that’s what Honey Boy is. Shia LaBeouf’s attempt to lay down his grudge and move forward. Let’s hope it works.