Sundance 2019: Honey Boy, by David Bax
Most of the attention paid to Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy will likely focus on its content, specifically the fact that it’s an autobiographical film by its writer, movie star Shia Labeouf, about his early days as a child actor in which he has a major supporting role as a character based on his own father. That’s understandable; it’s a great hook. But Honey Boy‘s artistic success owes far more to its form. Har’el’s shoot-from-the-hip expressionism and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s sickly intoxicating neon glow not only propel the film, they also illuminate, through mimicry, the manic, rootless energy of a life in show business with a drunk ex-convict veteran for a father, manager, chaperone and role model. The film and its protagonist are constantly moving, just not always forward.
The bulk of Honey Boy is set in 1995, early in the career of Otis (A Quiet Place‘s Noah Jupe). Between days on set, he spends his time in a cheap motel with his father, James (Labeouf), a former rodeo clown with four years of sobriety under his belt and a tendency to treat his twelve-year-old son more as an antagonistic roommate/boss than a child. The film occasionally checks in with a second plotline, in which 2005 Otis (Lucas Hedges, almost uncomfortably perfect in his recreation of tabloid-troubled mid-2000s Labeouf) lands himself in rehab.
Refreshingly, Honey Boy avoids moralizing. Neither Labeouf’s screenplay nor Har’el’s direction feign shock at James’ parenting, which includes, for instance, bribing his young son with cigarettes. Young Otis’ potential sexual relationship with a woman who also lives in the motel (FKA Twigs) is presented with a similar lack of judgment (though one wonders to what extent the filmmakers are comfortable potentially revisiting the same traumas on Jupe that Labeouf may have endured).
Any moral questions raised by Honey Boy are almost certainly intentional, though, given the film’s hyper self-awareness. In other words, the movie knows that you know that it’s a movie about Shia Labeouf. This is especially obvious in a third act, Hedges-Shia dream sequence I won’t spoil. But clues are present throughout. When rehab-Otis’ therapist (Laura San Giacomo, terrific) interprets her client’s philosophy as, “Having your own ideas is key,” it’s impossible not to be reminded of Labeouf’s 2012 plagiarism scandal.
If, in its final act, Honey Boy retreats to some of the same easy father/son catharses you might find in the television movies of the week young Otis stars in, you might chalk it up to more self-referentialism. That’s probably giving the movie too much credit but, the truth is, Honey Boy is distinctive and enthralling enough to paper over such minor missteps.