Cinematic Releases: Honey Boy (2019) - Reviewed

What a frustrating endeavor. Less a biopic and more a therapeutic exercise for the tortured soul that is Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy never fully lands its emotional punches.  Splitting the story between young Otis (Noah Jupe), Shia’s fictionalized stand in and adult Otis (Lucas Hedges), the film attempts to not only explain the star’s destructive (mostly of self) behavior but also purge him of his demons. The biggest demon being his father, James.

In playing James, LaBeouf is getting it all out on screen. All the anger, rage, pathetic sadness, it’s a powerful performance. In conjunction with a terrific Jupe, the flashback scenes of Otis’ childhood work the best and manage to pull the most emotion out of you.  LaBeouf disappears into his father and when he’s not onscreen, the film suffers. 

It’s the present day stuff with Hedges that feels underwritten, rote and ultimately lifeless. Hedges is excellent but he’s working against two flatly written therapists in scenes that feel like they’re from another film. All of the soul and beauty that director Alma Har’el gives to flashbacks feels drained in the present. 

And perhaps that’s the point? I’m not sure. All of the shagginess and messiness lend themselves to the disjointed mind of an addict and the child they’re harming. It just never came together for me. Har’el is clearly a brilliant filmmaker. She combines the inventiveness of her music videos and realism of her documentaries to create some truly special images. Her film just doesn’t stick the landing. 

The best examples of Honey Boy’s unevenness are the interactions between young Otis and an older sex worker played by FKA Twigs. In them, she gives Otis a love and tenderness that doesn’t come from his father. These are beautiful, largely silent scenes where the two mime a lot of their interactions. It’s a surreal and heartbreaking device that mirrors Otis’s father’s rodeo clown career. 

The problem is, these scenes also veer towards romantic and almost sexual. They kiss each other all over their faces, they hold each other in bed.  It’s problematic for lack of a better term. The film never tries to address it and instead, almost actively ignores it. Again, this could be the point. Maybe LaBeouf and Har’el’s intention is to portray the conflicting dynamics that got Otis to his volatile adulthood. I’m just not sure it works as well as the film’s latter half needs it to. 

That’s Honey Boy in a nutshell: moments of pure brilliance bogged down by increasingly frustrating hollowness. One can see how getting this film out and off of his chest would be a cathartic experience for LaBeouf but the emotional resonance just doesn't fully connect. The most positive takeaway is that Alma Har'el is going to be a filmmaker you'll want to keep an eye on going forward. She's the real deal.

-Brandon Streussnig