I remember a lot of folks thinking 2019’s “Honey Boy” might land a few Oscar nominations. The film is written by Shia LaBeouf, and it’s a largely autobiographical look at the actor’s life. It’s also Alma Har’el’s directorial debut, and Bong Joon-ho (director of “Parasite”) has called her someone to watch in the years to come.
The nominations came and went, though, and “Honey Boy” wasn’t included. (Neither was “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which is still a film I tell everyone they should watch.)
LaBeouf stars as James Lort, the father of a young actor named Otis (Noah Jupe), who’s a star on a TV show. James is his manager, for all intents and purposes. He’s also Otis’ ride to the set. They live in a motel, and to say it’s not a happy life would be an understatement. James is abusive, mentally, emotionally and physically. His salary comes from Otis because James is a recovering addict and registered sex offender, and the father can’t get a job elsewhere.
To watch them is incredibly painful, especially if, like Otis (and LaBeouf), you were the child of an abusive parent.
On the flip side, we get to see a grownup Otis (played now by Lucas Hedges), who’s ended up angry, destructive and with his own addiction issues, which land him in rehab. LaBeouf had similar issues and also landed in rehab, which is where he partially wrote the script for “Honey Boy.”
There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles with “Honey Boy.” It’s a film that is visceral and raw. I wasn’t kidding when I said it was painful. James is a man who doesn’t know how to fight his demons. At one point, he asks Otis if he understands what it feels like to be paid by his son, and Otis calmly responds that if he didn’t pay him he wouldn’t be there.
James is a man filled with rage, sadness and confusion. He’s not a saint, but at the same time you have to wonder if he wishes he could be better. Otis is a part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and Otis threatens his Big Brother, Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.), with some pretty nasty, not-printable consequences if he tries to continue his relationship with Otis. I’m not making excuses for James — I think he’s a jackass of the highest order — but, at the same time, it feels like he honestly doesn’t know how to be a good person, or even kind to others.
And there’s Otis. He’s just a kid, but he’s smoking cigarettes. He befriends a young woman at the motel, Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), who cuddles with him — literally just holds him — and he gives her cash for the experience. He’s only 12, and he’s been taught love isn’t free. It’s 10 years later when we see Hedges’ Otis. His therapist (played by Laura San Giacomo) diagnoses him with PTSD and works through rage exercises with him. It’s heartbreaking when you consider how Otis found stardom at a young age, but he never managed to find happiness.
The film features some powerful performances. LaBeouf truly picked 2019 as a time to shine. Between “Honey Boy” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” he showed a side that we never got to see in popcorn flicks like “Transformers” or the “Indiana Jones” film we all pretend doesn’t exist: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” (It’s right up there with “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Battlefield Earth” or any other film that leaves you wondering “What were they thinking?”)
But, I digress.
“Honey Boy” is a cleverly made film. Everything is on point. From the performances to the direction to the cinematography, we become a part of this tragic tale. It’s hard to watch, but it’s also hard to look away. Every time James belittles Otis, it’s heartbreaking. He comments on everything from his manhood to acting abilities. When Otis fights back, James slaps him down. He also forgets his son, leaving him to figure out how to get “home” from the set. And worse, we see the man that Otis became. He never found someone to love him, and he never learned how to deal with the hand he’d been dealt.
As a film, “Honey Boy” is wonderfully crafted and an incredibly real slice of life. It’s also devastating on a lot of levels, and I’ll never watch it again. You can find the film on Amazon Prime, but in these trying times, I’d recommend finding something that fills you with joy, rather than sadness.