Written as an exercise while in rehab, Shia LeBeouf’s script for “Honey Boy” is a biographical piece about growing up as a child actor with an addicted former rodeo clown and Vietnam Vet father who didn’t always have his son’s best interest in mind. By turns touching and bleak, tender and therapeutic, the film is a testament to art as a tonic to heal wounds.
LeBeouf’s alter ego is Otis, played as a twelve-year-old by Noah Jupe, a twenty-two year-old Hollywood stunt man by Lucas Hedges. We first meet him as a young adult on his way to court-ordered rehab after an altercation. There he begins putting pen to paper as a way to come to grips with an unconventional young life.
Cutting between present day and the events of a decade before, “Honey Boy” documents twelve-year-old Otis’s relationship with his unpredictable father James (LaBeouf). James is a frustrated and frustrating burn-out who relies on his son financially. He is the very embodiment of a man “doing the best he can” with his son, but it’s not nearly enough. Otis, an innocent, is forced to grow up fast, to define his love-hate relationship with James. He imagines telling his old man, “I’ve always been waiting for you to act like a real dad,” but, instead he says, “You work for me. I’m your boss.”
“Honey Boy” is about a terrible relationship but it isn’t an angry movie. LeBeouf’s script and the direction of Alma Har’el, capture a heartbreaking melancholy of a father who never recovered from having his dreams shattered. Otis may say “The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain,” but there is empathy in the words and in LeBeouf’s portrayal of James. He’s abusive, drunk, prone to violence, but he’s broken and knows no other path. It’s not an excuse, simply an observation. “Stop bringing up the past,” James tells Otis. “I can’t get out from under it.”
The film’s coda, an earnest reckoning between father and son, sheds light on the aftermath of their abusive relationship. It’s here “Honey Boy” shows its greatest compassion for a damaged person. Raw and powerful, it’s father and son coming to an understanding after a lifetime of turmoil. When James says, “As you get older you get to learn about life. You get to know where you come from,” it feels like LeBeouf’s acceptance of their relationship. The choice of closing credit song, Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” reinforces the feeling. “All I really want to do,” Dylan rasps, “Is, baby, be friends with you.”