Editor’s Warning: This is a review of a film shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. There is a chance that this film will not be accessible for a specific period of time, depending on the film’s release date. Be aware that there may be slight spoilers. Proceed at your own discretion.
Well, Shia LaBeouf has done many forms of performance art during his post-Disney years. Taboo comic books. Plagiarizing athletes statements during interviews. Donning a paper bag on his head during a red carpet. Just do it (and make your dreams come true in the process). I can't say I am the biggest fan of his, especially because many of his roles and attempts come up short. However, I'm always interested to see what he will do next. You're always going to be provoked in some way with him. His latest experiment is his screenplay for Honey Boy: a semi autobiographical film that incorporates his struggles with his father. LaBeouf wrote this screenplay during rehabilitation, as a means of understanding his current struggles through his childhood. He plays his own father in the film, with Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges basically playing him (here named Otis) at various stages of his life.
The film starts off sharply self aware. Otis is on set, yelling "No, no, no!" while an explosion goes off. He dangles from a rigging, waiting to be rescued by crew. Right away, we know this is meant to be Shia LaBeouf. He is infamous for yelling "no" during his films. We now know that he knows about this phenomenon. What we can also gather is how pugnacious LaBeouf (or Otis) is, if he's willing to simply just wait to be rescued after the stunt. It's a similar stunt to one Otis took part in as a child (that time, it was a custard pie to the face). Ever since birth, Otis has been taught to take beatings, conserve his rage, and unleash it at will (as an actor). We learn so much so quickly. That's when you know this is going to be something special.
And special it is. Honey Boy is easily the greatest experiment Shia LaBeouf has ever committed to. It results in his strongest performance yet. Filmmaker Alma Har'el allows this to be LaBeouf's hour, by channeling strictly through him. You have to know the story behind the film in order for it to truly hit. You must know LaBeouf is playing his own father as a means of understanding his own troubles. With this information, Honey Boy becomes a harrowing film to witness. This is essentially the reliving of torment, anguish, and depression. Who wants to do that, let alone on screen for the world to see? Who feels comfortable enough portraying a family member in such a complicated way?
A latter scene has Otis' father learning he is going to be the context of his son's next film. He asks for Otis to make him look nice. Honey Boy doesn't exactly do that, but you can tell at all times that LaBeouf genuinely loves his father, and everything in the film comes from a place of wanting to connect with him. It's hard to justify his father (here named James) entirely, but maybe this is the furthest LaBeouf could go with redeeming him. You know the effort was made. That's something that makes Honey Boy hurt more. This is the best he could do before he starts lying.
The older Otis is stuck in rehab, having to serve his time there to avoid a prison sentence. The film cuts between his childhood memories, and his recovery process. Many moments fuse together, perhaps insisting that Otis will never truly escape his past (hence why he needs to make amends with himself and his father). Need I remind you that this was a script written by Shia LaBeouf while he himself was recovering. The writing's on the wall this entire film. It's blatantly obvious that Honey Boy is a cathartic experience for him, but it's the subtext of how he struggles to come to grips with who he is that sell this idea. Shia LaBeouf writes a story about his dad and stars as him? Sure, whatever. Shia LaBeouf recreates the worst memories of his life, through his own source of anger in the form of his father? Now that's unique.
Honey Boy costs through many memories and nightmares, that only seem to get worse and worse. At a brisk hour and a half, you just know there was so much more to this story than this. You won't feel like you're missing anything, though. You're shown just enough to understand it all. The strange thing is Honey Boy never feels like a victim's complex narrative, despite James gaslighting his own son with that label. This is major credit to the two Otis portrayals. Noah Jupe is simply fantastic as the child Otis, and is easily one of the better kid performances in recent memory. Lucas Hedges is so spot-on as Shia LaBeouf (I'm sorry, I mean Otis), that I'm only getting more and more convinced that this guy is going to be Oscar clad in the very near future. Can Lucas Hedges get any better?
But the award goes to Shia, who takes on the task of damning himself, and having to make his father look good but also be his father. This incredibly layered performance is unlike anything the actor's ever committed to. It's a performance of pain, but with just enough familial love to create a connection between us and him, never mind just Shia alone. Honey Boy is one of the best concepts of the year, but it's the true commitment of everyone on board that renders it a staggeringly affecting work. This results in a major win for Shia LaBoeuf. Finally. One of these ideas came to true fruition, and boy is it arresting.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.