Child actors lead a horribly dark life where their childhood is stolen from them and their parents are usually exploiting them for money and fame. Such a dark side of Hollywood is not normally explored on screen, but it is done so with the semi-autobiographical Honey Boy (2019), which was written by Shia LaBeouf about his own experiences as a youth in the film industry.
Honey Boy looks at the story of Otis both in 1996 (played by Noah Jupe) and 2006 (played by Lucas Hedges). The film looks at the life that Otis leads as a child actor when he is 12-years-old, and how he is exploited and abused by his father James (Shia LaBeouf). As a 22-year-old, Otis has incredible anger and addiction issues, which force him to go to rehab. There he is forced to reconcile with his traumatic past.
The film is the feature-directing debut for Alma Har’el, and she is able to beautifully capture the complexities in Otis’ anger and the relationship with his father. The film isn’t self-pitying and is able to take on a gentle tone that captures the desperate routine life that Otis is in. Har’el is skilled enough to not indulge in too much drama in her scenes, instead showing restraint and how truly anti-climactic life can be. She is also able to capture the very different tones of the two halves of Otis’ life. The younger Otis has us in a more immersed atmosphere as we see him trying to navigate his father’s mood swings and slowly breaking down emotionally. The lack of love or acknowledgment that 12-year-old Otis feels is brought forth in a heart-wrenching scene in which after being comforted by a neighboring girl from a motel, he pays her; completely ignorant that a show of love can be non-transactional. The older Otis’ life is analyzed in a much more skeptical view, thumbing its nose to the real value of emotions, while also slowly melting away such cynicism in small yet smart scenes.
Both Hedges and Jupe perform admirably. Hedges is able to capture the rage and frustration in the older Otis with a shaking intensity, while Jupe has the quieter role and brings forth a scared and innocent child being forced to grow up much faster than he would like. However, it is LaBeouf that should garner all the praise.
The American actor not only brings forth his career best performance in Honey Boy, but is also able to dig into such a painful part of his own past and seek to understand a man that caused him so much pain (his father). In that sense, both his performance and script are incredibly impressive at how they seek to understand the cogs of this abusive father; which seem rooted in an insecurity and self-loathing. It is a perfect encapsulation of the emasculated male who purges all his emotions so as to become self-destructive; that demographic is seemingly more and more populous in the world, and an exploration of such is necessary to understand them.
The meditative tone serves the film well in showing the slow decline and inverse discovery in Otis’ journey, however, it might prove to be too slow a rhythm for some viewers; despite the film only being over an hour and thirty minutes. The lack of a climactic action or explosive moment may disappoint some viewers, but pleased me in how it showed the uncinematic reality of life. It puts forth the message that one has to deal with one’s own demons if the chain of inner darkness is to be broken.
In the end Honey Boy is an extremely emotionally and psychologically cathartic film, which also takes a view at the dark business of child actors. The incredible performances along with the therapeutically brilliant script from LaBeouf and steady yet gentle directing from Har’el are enough to make this a pretty gem of a film.