Monday 28 October 2019

HONEY BOY - London Film Festival review

Honey Boy follows the life of young actor Otis across two timeframes, as the older incarnation uses his time in rehab to reassess his childhood and the volatile relationship he had with his father. 

I would say that Honey Boy is loosely based on the life of Shia LaBeouf, but within seconds of the film's introduction to a 22 year old Otis (Lucas Hedges), performing a stunt on the set of his latest big budget action film (and complete with a nod to LaBeouf's often mocked "no, no, no, no, no" approach to line delivery), it's clear that, with the exception of the names of the main characters, this doesn't stray too far from the truth. To remove any doubt, the film then launches into a montage of the young Hollywood star's hedonistic lifestyle, culminating a car crash that leaves the actor with severe injuries, much like LaBeouf's own accident during the production of Transformers 2 that almost cost him the use of his hand and required major surgery to fix.

Entering rehab to work on his drink problem and the PTSD from his accident, Otis is tasked by his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) to keep a journal as part of his recovery, something that sends him, and the action of the film, back to his childhood in 1995 when he was starring on a kids TV show. Chaperoned by his braggadocio father James (Shia LaBeouf in a not too convincing balding hairpiece), Otis learns how to grow as a performer from James, a combat veteran and former rodeo clown with endless cheesy one-liners that impress no-one but himself. A recovering alcoholic who's displeased at having to live vicariously through his more talented son, James is a domineering, selfish, often abusive jerk towards his son. It's too LaBeouf's credit that despite all this, the relationship between Otis and James is one you want to see succeed, and touched with moments of sweetness, such as when they hold hands as they approach a taco stand, only breaking contact under the threat that someone might see them and misinterpret their affection.

Director Alma Har'el, best know for her documentaries Bombay Beach and LoveTrue that openly blended fact and fiction to create scenes of magic realism, makes her narrative feature film debut here by bringing her established style to LaBeouf's extremely personal script. Once the enfant terrible of young Hollywood with some performance art projects that were met with much sniggering derision, after a few years in the wilderness LaBeouf silenced a lot of his critics with his role in Andrea Arnold's American Honey and his method intensity on David Ayer's Fury, permanently scarring his face in the pursuit of a realistic war wound. Playing what is a thinly veiled approximation of his own father here, he delivers an often bombastic performance that could veer into caricature if not for the grounding influence of his scene partner, Noah Jupe, as the 12 year old Otis. The scenes between the two of them that take up the bulk of the story are often loud, vindictive shouting matches and with a constant fear of what might happen to the young Otis, but LaBeouf's script, although not short of dramatics (one stand out scene places the 12 year old Otis on the phone, acting as the go-between for his warring parents by mimicking their voices as he relays their hurtful messages to one another), stops short of feeling like a misery memoir.

Under Har'el's direction, Honey Boy lets some touches of dream-like fantasy come into play as the film heads towards its climax, but the earlier sections are all about raw human drama, and although Hedges's scenes are far outnumbered by the extensive flashbacks, the damaged masculinity he offers is unlike anything I've seen him take on before, with his older Otis bridging the gap between his younger self and the lingering cloud of his father. In a strange way, although this film is LaBeouf's story on screen, and you will undoubtedly leave the film with a new appreciation for how he's found a way to process the unresolved traumas of his childhood as an actor and the relationship with his father, the most crucial piece of the puzzle is the performance of Noah Jupe as the younger Otis, who delivers the best performance of the film by no small margin. 

To some this could be too easy to dismiss based on your feelings towards Shia LaBeouf and his somewhat erratic persona, but Honey Boy is a raw, emotional, deeply personal story that is pleasantly, gratifyingly moving.



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