MOVIE REVIEW: Shia LaBeouf's ‘Honey Boy’ is a powerful movie rooted in family conflict

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Shia LaBeouf wrote and stars as his own real-life father in "Honey Boy," a drama about family dysfunction.

Negative events generated by actor Shia LaBeouf highlighted the possibility that he might be his own worst enemy.

A variety of arrests for ever-escalating antics of the drunk and abusive kind, an acting track record that for a while wasn’t particularly stellar, and charges of creative plagiarism cast a harsh light on his potential as someone whom studios should consider for roles.

Oh come on, anybody who thinks people went to the successful “Transformer” movies to see LaBeouf doesn’t know anything about the motion picture business. And yes, he was cast as Mutt Williams, who, magically it seemed, was the son of Indiana Jones in the adventure “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.” That role didn’t take LaBeouf very far because he always seemed to be screwing up between acting gigs.

The former child star, an actual native of Los Angeles, is now 33, and he’s lived a rough public life. Criminal charges rising out of manic alcohol-fueled disruptions led to counseling, intensive therapy, rehabilitation, and an understanding by LaBeouf that he was yet one more crash-and-burn fatality waiting to happen. The Manhattan club scene forgives a lot of sins; therefore, you have to be truly obnoxious, exhibit extremely strange behavior, and be far too overloaded with booze to have bouncers call the police to haul you out of Studio 54, even the new incarnation of it.

Through all of this, the promise of LaBoeuf as a talented person never really diminished. He’s a very natural performer, a gifted young man with an innate understanding of how to create characters that audiences will find believable. Moviegoers want to follow who he’s playing because LaBoeuf has the knack not everyone has of being able to draw them into the story. I think he’s an outstanding actor.

Rehab has been good for LaBeouf. If you have movie nights in your home, watch “American Honey” (2016; adults and mature teens only) and “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (2019; adults, older kids, and all teens). Both are available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be watched through various digital outlets. In these excellent independent films, LaBoeuf delivers exceptional performances. If giving one’s heart and soul to a new and more potent interpretation of acting is part of his 12-step program, then he’s succeeding at an extraordinary level.

We now have “Honey Boy,” and it’s even better than the other two pictures. LaBeouf has written an acid-dipped screenplay that draws from his own experiences growing up. And, in an astonishing act of upending the very table upon which art sits imitating life, he has cast himself as his own emotionally cruel, psychologically demanding, and abusive father.

The riveting movie, which is directed by documentarian Alma Har’el in her feature-film debut, has key names changed, and LaBeouf plays his paternal stand-in with vigor and a strong touch of anger.

James Lort (LaBeouf) is a fellow for whom variations of a word form apply: rage and ragged. The man sits on a crumbling edge of substance abuse and personal neglect that compound the mess he’s made of his life. He’s an angry “stage father” who needs money; therefore, he’s hitched his wagon to the potential stardom of his son, Otis, a promising child actor.

The Lorts live in a tacky motel. James drives Otis to auditions and to movie sets when the boy gets a gig. Director Har’el and writer LaBeouf have crafted a finely drawn study of the ills visited upon a child by a parent who is clearly a failure as a caretaker and confidant. Reasonable fathers and sons often bond by sharing positive secrets. The secrets in “Honey Boy” are best described as sad, perhaps even sorrow-inducing.

Screenwriter LaBeouf uses flash-forwards to reveal truths about how he sees the path he’s taken. We are wary as we watch the young Otis, and we become concerned for his well-being.

However, we also become involved with the life track of the older Otis (a very good Lucas Hedges), who is burdened by deep psychological and emotional fissures. He’s had to appear in court because of his involvement in a vehicular accident. Essentially, the judge orders him to get his act together, or else. His sentence is rigidly overseen rehabilitation.

The effect of LaBoeuf writing about himself and also playing his own unstable father is fascinating. I find this aspect of the film remarkable and admire his ability to not only create a very strong screenplay and tell a story that will interest audiences, but also to have the capability and courage to challenge himself and chronicle the unfortunate things that happened to him as a child and teenager.

As an actor in the movie LaBeouf is terrific. How he has visualized his father from his youth, and now depicts him on the screen, is startling. There are also superb performances from Noah Jupe as the young Otis and Laura San Giacomo as the rehab center counselor.

“Honey Boy” is about the collapsed existence of an angry young man who has played out his frailties and failures in public. LaBeouf understands clearly the damage he has wreaked upon himself and others.

In one scene, the older Otis says, “I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” Movies, and actors, rarely get more honest than this. LaBeouf is brave, and so is “Honey Boy.”

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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