Honey Boy is an explanation. It might even be a baptism. Or maybe it's about permission. Permission to hate, permission to forgive, and permission to move on.
Written by Shia Labeouf, Honey Boy is a semi–autobiographical look at his life as a child actor, told across two time periods: his beginnings as a twelve year–old living in a motor lodge, and his unraveling as a successful young star who finds himself in rehab for the third time. Shia Labeouf's fictionalized stand–in, Otis, is played by Noah Jupes in his youth and Lucas Hedges in his young adulthood, as the film switches between the two over its 93–minute run.
The film opens in 2005, with a sequence of adolescent Otis (Lucas Hedges), standing in front of an explosion. He is pulled away by a cable harness at the last minute, and goes airborne. As the camera pulls away, it becomes apparent that this is all unfolding on the sound stage of an action film that looks like the set of Transformers. It very well might be after all, given the personal history that the film calls upon. The film goes through a supercut of his acting in various genre films, intercut with scenes of him drinking and banging around violently in his set trailer. Otis then drunk drives and crashes his car with his girlfriend in it. He is arrested and sent to rehab.
His psychiatric treatment for alcoholism and PTSD involves memory recall, a farming device that allows the film to transition between past and present. It's a simple device, which works at some turns and seems way too on–the–nose at others. Take for example, the moment when alcoholic Otis slips into a pool at the rehabilitation facility and suddenly recalls a traumatic pool party scene from his childhood. The majority of the film is spent with twelve year–old Otis. So what then is the connection between the two temporalities? Otis is in rehab because of trauma inflicted upon him by his father, the majority of which occurred in the years he lived with him as a tween.
Labeouf himself is a recovering alcoholic, arrested twice for public intoxication and disorderly conduct in 2014 and 2017. Honey Boy can be understood as Labeouf's own searching for his self–motivation for his actions. As writer and subject of the film, he is both psychiatrist and patient. It is better then that he let Israeli director Alma Har'el direct the film, as she provides a buffer between Labeouf and his own material.
We first meet young Otis staring somberly into the camera as he is smashed in the face with a cream pie. It's a slapstick scene in a film, rendered sorrowful. He has the look of young Chiron staring at his mother in Moonlight, or young Neil looking puzzlingly at his baseball coach in Mysterious Skin. He's supposed to be having fun, but he isn't. He takes the moment, then finishes acting for the day to go fetch his recovering alcoholic father James (played by Labeouf himself), who is flirting with a producer out back. They ride by motorcycle to their shabby blue motel room, and retire for the day.
James is a balding Vietnam veteran, who made ends meet as a chicken–training rodeo clown until Otis made enough as an actor to support the two of them. He has backswept hair and a paunchy stomach, and looks like Ben Franklin if he wore Hawaiian shirts every day and had an affinity for cigarettes and sock juggling.
Their relationship is a strange, but undeniably abusive one. His father fancies himself his manager rather than a parent, making him run lines, do laundry, and fetch soda from the vending machine.
James tells Otis that he is indispensable to his acting. "I'm your cheerleader honey boy," he says.
James is one of the most dangerous types of parents, with unpredictable mood swings and bouts of verbal abuse.
Honey Boy is a rollercoaster of contradictory characterizations and emotions, mirroring the unpredictable nature of parental abuse and confusion of trauma. At times, James is an idiotic, unthreatening buffoon who seems more delusional than dangerous. But then something switches. He tells Otis his mother doesn't care about him, he throws a lit cigarette at him, he slaps him across the face, and makes him pinky promise to be nicer to him. He throws Otis' big brother mentor into the pool and tells him to never contact his son again. Until the film reaches an emotional climax, there isn't a clear sense of how dangerous James truly is as a father.
The film is simultaneously interested in the life of the motel complex, and the interrelations of its denizens. In many ways, the film is about a disillusioned and poor America, in the vein of The Florida Project and American Honey, the latter of which Labeouf also starred in.
There are several tender scenes between Otis and "Shy Girl" (FKA Twigs), who offers her presence when James isn't around. She doesn't speak more than a few lines in the film, though she has the silent maternal touch that Otis so craves.
Though bleak, the film is not humorless. In present–day rehab, Otis jokes about cleaning up a chicken coop with his roommate, and needles him for his knitting obsession. They laugh at their crunchy instructor who tells them to hug themselves in an act of self–love and acceptance.
But as a whole, these scenes of Otis as an adolescent feel like a distraction from the gut–wrenchingly emotional scenes between Otis and his father. They form a cliched stumbling block, making the most resonant parts of Otis' past feel like flashbacks. Honey Boy would have been a much more powerful film had it dwelled in Otis' childhood rather than examining his tumultuous present. Watching scenes of his childhood abuse, one can imagine how they will affect Otis later in life, and the audience doesn't need to be shown scenes of Otis yelling in the psychiatrist's office as he works through his trauma.
It's far more heartbreaking to see the twelve year–old boy, clad in a grey wife–beater and single crystal necklace, look his father in the eye and tell him: "You wouldn't be here if I didn't pay you."
The nods to Otis' present obviously serve a purpose, though, allowing Labeouf to work through the lingering affects of his abuse. The film's endnote is one of hope and healing, which surprisingly feels earned. Writing Honey Boy must have been therapeutic for Labeouf, though it never feels self–serving. It remains a mature look at how love and mistreatment can become confusingly intertwined.