Honey Boy – Young fame and the misguided support of a troubled parent

Born in 1986, Shia LaBeouf found fame at a young age through stand up comedy and then the Disney Channel. His talent finding worldwide stardom with the 2007 hit Disturbia. However, as with many child actors before him, the journey to this point was far from glamourous; fraught with alcohol, anger and internal struggle. Written by LaBeouf, ‘Honey Boy’ may have changed the names of its characters, but clearly portrays LaBeouf’s own lived experience. Providing us with a deeply personal journey into his anger, addiction and volatile relationship with his father. In a film that navigates the challenges of early fame; the demons of addiction and the misguided actions of a parent living their own dreams through their child.

Honey Boy opens amid explosions and stunts on a 2005 film set. Otis (Lucas Hedges) is a young actor whose life is submerged in a bottle of any spirit he can find. His existence a whirlwind of anger, frustration and risk that eventually leads him to rehab. His internal hurt and trauma coming from a fractious and challenging relationship with his father; one that takes us back to 1995 and young Otis (Noah Jupe) sitting on the brink of stardom. Living in motel rooms with his recovering alcoholic father (Shia LaBeouf); a failed rodeo clown who chaperones young Otis to studio sessions. The relationship between both father and son at times loving and at times deeply unsettling.

The young Otis is desperately striving for a better future, while his father lives out his failings through his son. Their relationship a mix of love, affection and volatility; the only tenderness in young Otis’ life coming from a young sex worker (FKA Twigs) who is also alone and alienated.

Honey Boy cleverly jumps from younger to older Otis with ease. The anger and pain of the young man, coupled with the slowly disintegrating innocence of his younger self. With Hedges beautifully encapsulating a life of contained rage and pain. While Noah Jupe is a revelation in his ability to reflect both the wonder of youth and the loneliness and segregation of childhood fame. Both actors giving performances full of tenderness, heart, and soul. While LaBeouf brings his own father to life in a performance of profound emotional bravery, echoing the discomfort of LaBeouf’s lived experience. The hurt and pain of his father’s behaviour etched into every scene he plays alongside Jupe.

Meanwhile, the father/son dynamic of Honey Boy screams with intensity and emotion. Tenderness and love mixed with volatility and anger. A dynamic that leaves both father and son in a void of emotional connection. Both lonely, both hurting and both unable to voice their deepest feelings. The success of the boy paying for the life of the father, in a subverted relationship of support.

However, what is truly fascinating in the delivery of ‘Honey Boy’ are the questions raised about child actors taken into an adult working world. A topic that been discussed copiously over the years. As one child actor after another has suffered through their early introduction to the Hollywood system. With ‘Honey Boy’ raising important debates on parental support in the lives of young actors. Support that if unbalanced, can lead to the kid’s isolation from the normal trappings and experiences of childhood. Their relationships bound to other adults rather than people of their own age; as life slowly becomes just another role. The ability to experience any normality limited by their fame and parental pressure to earn more. The only escape door provided by a range of mind-altering substances that only deepen the internal crisis.

Alma Har’el’s direction is delicate, encouraging her cast to engage in the emotion of the script, while never allowing things to tip into melodrama. Her eye for documentary filmmaking visible in a film that buzzes with lived experience and emotional connection to the subject matter; bringing out the very best from Jupe, LaBeouf and Hedges. At the same time, Natasha Braier’s beautiful cinematography creates a dreamlike landscape. Every scene bathed in the light of dawn or the dusky shadows of night. Symbolising a life lived on the edges of light and darkness for Otis; his own mental state never truly in one or the other.

Honey Boy is a compelling journey into personal experience. A film that never seeks to apportion blame for the problems experienced in later life. Opting instead to unpick and make peace with the complex relationships that can lead to addiction. While understanding the complexity of young fame, the volatility of alcoholism and the misguided actions of a troubled parent.

Director:  Alma Har’el

Cast: Shia LaBeoufLucas HedgesNoah Jupe

Lucas Hedges also appears in Boy Erased, Ben is Back and Coming of Age – The Essential Collection

Read more reviews from BFI London Film Festival here