Honey Boy REVIEW – A Therapeutic Search for Tenderness
Nearly all great films are personal works that mean a great deal to the filmmakers who create them, but 2019 in particular has seen a considerable amount of films that have been semi, if not fully, autobiographical. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell pulled from the memory of her grandmother’s terminal diagnosis, the clash between her Chinese and American values, and the different ways the two cultures grieve. Pedro Almodóvar shared the story of his childhood, sexual awakening, drug addictions, health issues, and a creative crisis all in Pain and Glory. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a coming-of-age tale that focuses on a toxic relationship, all from her real experiences in film school. Even Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman reads as a lament, or at least a critical retrospective, of his own career.
Honey Boy is an artistic form of therapy for its writer, Shia LeBeouf, quite literally written as a form of therapy while the actor was in a rehabilitation program. After being arrested for public intoxication in 2017, and following a string of strange behavior he became infamously known for, LeBeouf went into rehab and discovered that he has PTSD, among other mental issues. The screenplay, which is based on both his current life and his childhood, seems to have helped him confront and reevaluate past traumas from his personal life, yet still manages to resonate something universal: the desire and need to be seen, to be heard, to be felt, and to be loved.
Otis Lort (Noah Jupe) is a 12 year-old child actor rising in stardom but still living in a cheap and dirty motel with his father, James (Shia LeBeouf). James is a combat veteran and recovering alcoholic. At this time, he’s a couple of years sober. But he’s also a felon, and without many job prospects, he’s living off his son’s paychecks. James seems to genuinely love his kid, and believes in his ability to become a star, but Otis’ living conditions still aren’t the best for a growing child. He’s caught in the middle of screaming matches between his mother and father, who are separated. James is rarely there on set with Otis, and sometimes doesn’t even remember to pick him up at the end of the day. James can also be a jealous and narcissistic bully, and often chastises his son for even thinking of challenging him on something.
It’s a lonely and cold life for Otis. He spends most of his time with his father, who rarely shows him any lasting sort of affection, certainly not ever in front of other people. In one scene, Otis is as serene as can be; he’s out with his dad to get some food, and they’re holding hands. But as soon as they’re in a public place, his dad roughly shoves his son’s hand away. At home, James, a former rodeo clown, shows a warmer side, practicing juggling with his son as the two swap stories about their day. But these moments are always fleeting, and days typically end with James becoming angry about one thing or another and lashing out. He tells Otis that he loves him, and there are times when this certainly seems true, but there are no hugs, no comfort, and no kisses.
Otis is just a child. He needs all of that – tenderness, warmth, and contact. As it turns out, so does his father. The film cuts back and forth between then and now, with the older, angrier, drunk movie star Otis (Lucas Hedges, once again pulling that magic trick of his where he completely disappears into a role) entering rehab. While there, things get a little meta, as Otis begins to write the screenplay for what is essentially this film. As the story progresses, an amazing kind of effect happens: Jupe, LeBeouf, and Hedges, all giving tremendous and tremendously different kinds of dramatic performances, end up feeling like the same person. Their journeys are spiritually the same; they’re ones of pain, both inherited and experienced, and of understanding and forgiveness.
LeBeouf’s script is painfully truthful, and there’s a lot of beauty to be found within that honesty. The three stories are blended together gorgeously by director Alma Har’el, who finds a balance between the darkness and whimsicality of childhood memories. Alex Somers’ tender, childlike score rounds out the bittersweet tone that makes Honey Boy such a tearjerker, and never crosses the line into melodramatic territory. The slow tone may make some viewers restless – I felt that it could be a tiny bit shorter – but the ending reaches such a point of catharsis that you’ll feel like you just went through therapy right along with Otis, or LeBeouf, whoever you’d prefer. Perhaps that was the intent.
There’s that old saying: Write what you know. Filmmakers have told stories from their own lives for decades, but recently, it feels like the veil has been lifted even further, like everyone has stopped being afraid to be as honest as they can be when telling their stories. There is a much more truthful kind of feel to the great movies of today; a true sense of realness. The more personal some movies are, the better they usually become. Honey Boy is one of those movies. It’s a masterpiece, one that reminds us that our personal journeys never end, because they’re always ongoing.
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Honey Boy is a deeply personal and painfully honest form of therapy for its creator, Shia LeBeouf, and is a phenomenal film because of it.
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