Home Theatre: The cinematic therapy of Honey Boy
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Honey Boy, streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Cinema as catharsis. Not for the audience, however, but the creator. Shia LaBeouf wrote the script of Honey Boy as part of the therapy during his rehab program. The film, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, shows us his on-screen surrogate Otis doing this as well at the behest of his rehab therapist. Honey Boy is filled with such meta instances. While Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play LaBeouf's 12 and 22-year-old versions, LaBeouf plays his own father James. The tumultuous relationship the actor shared with his alcoholic, abusive father during his childhood forms the core of the film.
The title Honey Boy comes from LaBeouf's own childhood nickname, and we see James use it when talking to Otis over the course of the film. His mother, whom we only hear on the phone once, just calls him 'Honey'. So his father's name for him seems like an ironic spin on this. Otis is a child actor and James is his paid chaperone. The fact that he is, in effect, an employee of his own son galls him. Otis throws this in his face during a crucial scene and even goes so far as to taunt him that no one else will employ a felon like him. For James, in addition to being a recovering alcoholic, also has a record as a sex offender. This is clearly no ordinary father-son relationship.
The grown-up Otis though resists pointing the finger at his father for his own alcoholism. "My dad's not the reason I drink," he tells his therapist during his court-ordered rehab after his third drunken altercation. He also finds it hard to believe when the doctor tells him he has PTSD. "From what?" he asks her, right before we cut to the title and the flashback. The scene that follows, of young Otis on set as a child actor, mirrors the opening sequence of 22-year-old Otis on the set of a Transformers-like big-budget action film (another meta nod as LaBeouf is known for the Transformers franchise). The action shot, the rap music that follows as Otis walks through the set after, the struggle to get out of the harness, it's all there. And it all points to how his childhood has led to where he is now.
Being an actor himself, it's no surprise that LaBeouf has written a script that puts acting at the forefront. Honey Boy is driven by its three central performances. Lucas Hedges, to be sure, doesn't have a whole lot to do, but does well with the little he has. LaBeouf, needless to say, pours himself into his father's character. But the real revelation here is Noah Jupe as 12-year-old Otis. The young actor is simply superb and often steals the scene even from LaBeouf. As, for instance, in the sequence where Otis acts as a mouthpiece for his mother to father and vice versa, when James refuses to speak to her on the phone. The boy doesn't just repeat their words but, being an actor, acts them out too with the appropriate inflection. It's a striking sequence.
Given the subject and all the meta allusions, this is the kind of film that could have easily crossed the line into self-indulgence. What keeps it at bay is the deft handling of director Alma Har'el. Honey Boy is the feature debut of the documentary filmmaker and she makes quite an impression. Har'el brings in a poetic quality to the film that by Labeouf's own admission was conceived as a dialogue-heavy script. Scenes of the father-son duo on a motorbike speak louder than the words here. That the film ends on a reversal of such a scene is only fitting. And the mid-film intercut scene of the young and old Otis walking alone into a yard/woods — one yelling in triumph while the other screams in pain — which could have easily felt too on the nose, works thanks to Har'el's direction.
There's a magical quality too to the scenes between young Otis and Shy Girl (played by singer-songwriter FKA Twigs), his neighbour from across the way at the motel. It makes us wish for a deeper look at the tenderness of this relationship. But the focus of Honey Boy is squarely on the central father-son dynamic. And despite being such an extreme and strange situation, this dynamic is oddly relatable. If you have had a dysfunctional parental relationship, even in the slightest degree, you will find something here that strikes a chord.
In another meta scene, grown-up Otis tells his father that he's going to make a movie about him. "Well make me look good, honey boy," says James. He says this because he knows that a film, a story will persist long after the people it is about are gone. As James tells young Otis in a different scene, "Wood rots. Stone crumbles. People f**king die. That’s the real world. The only thing that is going to live on is fables and stories and dreams." That also sums up the power of cinema. It not only provides catharsis, but acts as legacy too.
(Honey Boy is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video)