One of the earliest things an aspiring writer learns is “write what you know”. If you have a firm grasp on a subject, it’s a lot easier to create a story out of it. It’s not so easy when you’re coming in blind and needing to do a whole lot of research. So, what do you know more than your own life? You were there the entire time, so nobody can tell your own story better than yourself.  
Honey Boy follows Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges), an alcoholic actor with a bit too many run-ins with the law. After he’s arrested for drunk driving, he’s given one last chance to stay out of prison by going to rehab. Otis’ therapist Dr. Loreno (Laura San Giacomo) believes he has PTSD and has him recount his experience as a child actor (Noah Jupe) and his relationship with his abusive father James (Shia LaBeouf). 
Honey Boy is an autobiographical film written by Shia LaBeouf in his screenwriting debut, telling the story about the toxic relationship with his father. The characters have different names, but this is definitely LaBeouf’s story. LaBeouf was one of the most iconic child actors of the 21st century, but it seemed like he was on a downward spiral with the whole “I’m not famous,” paper bag thing and “DO IT!” Well, he’s clearly doing a lot better now, appearing in a lot more films and toning down his real-life antics. He went to rehab and wrote this screenplay as part of that program, which is echoed at the end of the film when the adult Otis tells James he’s going to write a movie about him. With what we see here, LaBeouf clearly had a horrid relationship with his father, putting up with a lot of verbal, and sometimes even physical, abuse. It’s incredibly sad to witness, but it’s a window into a lot of lives we never really see. If somebody has a lot of problems, there’s usually a reason for it. 
You can call LaBeouf writing a screenplay about his abusive relationship with his father as fetishizing his own sadness, but I viewed it as therapy. Writing about yourself requires a lot of introspection and while LaBeouf had a lot of issues caused by his father, I’m sure him retelling his story made him examine his father more and realize why he was the way he was. His father clearly had a lot of insecurity about not really amounting to anything in life, so he lived vicariously through Shia, pushing him and abusing him, like no father should. Stories about abusive parents hit me especially hard, because they just confuse me. Both of my parents were loving and supportive when I grew up, so I just don’t know how somebody could treat their own flesh and blood like that. With this slice of life, though, you feel every emotional gut punch you’re supposed to feel.
Of course, what’s essential to this relationship between the characters working is to have the right actors, and you couldn’t have gotten better choices than Noah Jupe and Shia LaBeouf. Not only was writing the film probably therapeutic for LaBeouf, but playing his father had to be, as well. He knows his father better than anybody, so playing him allowed him to channel all of the right emotions, while also looking at things more from his father’s perspective. LaBeouf is a much better actor than some people give him credit for. The fact that he can act so well against a ball on a stick is all you need to know about him as an actor. He really is incredible here, with a very complex character. He may treat his son like garbage, but you can still hear the “love” in his voice when he tries to pump up Otis by yelling at and insulting him, thinking he’s preventing him from going down the same path. You can assume that he was also treated poorly by his father, which just continues the cycle of inadequacy and abuse. However, LaBeouf didn’t want to make his dad a villain, but a person. Everybody has flaws. LaBeouf’s father obviously had some horrible flaws and nothing excuses his actions, but making him a layered character makes the relationship in the film that much more impactful. 
Jupe is just as excellent, which is very impressive for how young he is. Otis’ character is just as complex as James and really required a child actor who can go through a lot of emotions, and Jupe shows that he’s the man. It really is a huge role to tackle, jumping back and forth between two personalities depending on his environment. On set, he’s cool and confident, wearing sunglasses and walking with a swagger. It’s really his only opportunity to be free, because when he’s with his dad, it’s all hunched shoulders and averting eyes. You can see how he desperately he wants to please his dad, but as time goes on, he realizes his dad will never be fully satisfied. LaBeouf is fantastic, but I was far more impressed with Jupe. Not only is he a British child who can effortlessly pull off an American accent, but the range of emotions his character has to go through is impressive for a 14-year-old. Indie film’s darling Lucas Hedges doesn’t disappoint either, putting in an emotionally heavy performance just like all of his other films. He portrays PTSD with a lot of realism. There’s no cool, confident swagger anywhere he goes. He constantly looks defeated and like he hates his entire life, like none of it was worth it at all. Hedges doesn’t exactly look like what Jupe would grow up to be, but the essence of Jupe’s performance is still there. Both terrific young actors. 
Alma Har’el, in her directorial debut, keeps things brisk, stylish, and fresh. The runtime is only 95 minutes, but not one moment drags or feels superfluous. The past and present timelines were the perfect structure to take, and Har’el and LaBeouf know just when to flashback and flashforward. Each scene hits the emotional notes they were going for, with some moments being absolutely surreal, but never missing that heart. There’s a stark contrast in how the film looks and feels when Otis is on set compared to being at home with his father. The studio backlots he works on are pristine, and the camerawork is steady and professional. Once he goes home with his dad to their dumpy motel, it’s all gross and trashy, with cigarettes littering their room and prostitutes hanging out right across the building. The camerawork gets a lot more intimate here, with a lot of shaky camera and close-ups, showing that in this environment, Otis isn’t in control. He doesn’t just lack control over his father, but with his therapist, and also a young(ish) prostitute (FKA Twigs) who becomes a nurturing figure to him. This was the only aspect of the film that didn’t really work for me. I understand the point that Otis is finding a connection with somebody, but their relationship feels vaguely romantic at times, which is uncomfortable when you consider Jupe is 14 and Twigs is 31. 
But hey, maybe LaBeouf actually did go through this specific situation and it had a big impact on his life, just like everything else in Honey Boy did. It totally works on its own as an original story, but when you consider that this is what LaBeouf went through and this is how he perceived it, it makes it that much more compelling and tragic. It’s a terrific screenwriting debut, as well as a directorial debut from Har’el, but when LaBeouf’s next script isn’t based off his real life experiences, will it be just as engrossing? Well, we won’t know until he gets there, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

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