“Honey Boy,” the debut narrative feature from filmmaker Alma Har’el, might just be the most cathartic film of 2019, perhaps even the entire decade. It’s a therapy session and a story about masculinity rolled into one emotional narrative, which transcends genre and blurs the lines of what’s real and what’s art.
The film follows Otis, played by Noah Jupe as a 12-year-old and Lucas Hedges as a 22-year-old, who is a successful film star from a young age. The older Otis struggles with addiction and is ordered into rehab by a court of law, where he is forced to confront his past. Otis remembers his childhood, living with his dad James (played by Shia LaBeouf) in a run-down motel, spending his days on set and nights smoking cigarettes with his dad. Otis tries to come to terms with the relationship he has with his father.
“Honey Boy” is nothing short of amazing; there’s really no other way to put it. Har’el gets authentic performances from all three of her leads, each of them more impressive than the last. The film is written by Shia LaBeouf and is based on his own experiences, Otis being a version of himself and James a version of his own father. The script was first written at a rehab center LaBeouf was ordered to and which is also covered in the film.
It’s a painfully honest and sobering depiction of LaBeouf’s childhood and his troubles. LaBeouf isn’t apologizing or hiding any of his own troubles, but invites us to understand his pain. This pain is something LaBeouf values and appreciates, but he’s also scared of; it’s the thing that has equally contributed to his success as well as his shortcomings.
Director Alma Har’el has crafted a gentle film, one that places equal value to LaBeouf’s pain and his healing. It’s a film about masculinity and men, a father and a son, but the film is dominated by Har’el’s motherly, female gaze. It’s present in the way Natasha Braier’s camera follows Otis around the studio lots and the way she allows the characters to live and breathe within the story. It’s a film with very little plot, very little aim, other than to invite us to be a part of Otis’s life.
Noah Jupe portrays Otis with admirable vulnerability and honesty. It’s a mature and layered performance from such a young actor, making it all the more impressive. Also impressive is Hedges, who has perfectly captured LaBeouf’s mannerisms and brings his inner turmoil to the screen with conviction and commitment. Hedges never mocks or imitates, but fully embodies LaBeouf. Hedges has made a name for himself playing vulnerable roles, but Otis’s hypermasculinity seems like a new challenge for Hedges. And he pulls it off, making it look effortless.
The real star here is LaBeouf himself. James is a tragic character and, while the film may ask the audience to understand him, asking us to see things from his perspective, there’s a sense it’s really LaBeouf himself trying to understand his father’s actions. Every now and then, “Honey Boy” feels like a private therapy session we’re secretly watching, but the film is always open and inviting in its approach to LaBeouf’s trauma.
Har’el never wants to point any fingers, making the film even more tragic. It shows you how broken people lash out, become the worst possible versions of themselves, almost unrecognizable. How does a gentle young boy turn into a reckless, entitled young man? Har’el does her best to show us what breaks a human.
Films often glorify one’s pain and internal suffering, but Har’el is more interested in actions and consequences, how one’s past inevitably shapes your future, but how that future is still yours to change and to reshape. It’s a film that is filled with personal demons and addiction, a lot of sadness, but most of all, “Honey Boy” is full of eternal hope.
“Honey Boy” is a film for all of us with crappy fathers, all of us who have felt abandoned. It’s a cathartic watch for anyone who has been disappointed by a parent. It gets so much right and never takes anything away from the experience, allowing us to experience those feelings in a safe environment and to process through them. It’s not an easy watch emotionally, but Har’el and LaBeouf find ways to make the story, which is both painfully personal and universal, cinematic. It’s the most personal filmmaking we have seen recently.
I will finish this review by admitting this is a film that hit me very hard on a personal level. What makes “Honey Boy” so devastating is the amount of love found within the scenes. Love between James and Otis, love from Har’el towards the film, love from LaBeouf towards his father and, ultimately, himself. “Honey Boy” is LaBeouf forgiving himself and his father and showing that love is not always enough to help, but it’s the key to healing. Love and forgiveness.
“Honey Boy” is without a doubt one of the best films of 2019. Its experimental approach to the narrative and brutal honesty feel like a breath of fresh air. Alma Har’el proves to be one of the most promising and established female filmmakers, while LaBeouf proves himself to be an honest and committed artist. “Honey Boy” is a cinematic experience to cherish.
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