Shia LaBeouf's 'Honey Boy' Centers On A Character Much Like Himself

Nov 7, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 7:09 pm
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Actor Shia LaBeouf grew up as a Disney Channel child star and graduated to leading-man status in "Transformers" and Indiana Jones movies. Off-screen, he experienced celebrity of a less welcome sort - a lot of arrests, extensive rehab, public stunts, an apology tour. And now he has written and is appearing in a movie that critic Bob Mondello says centers on a character much like himself. It's called "Honey Boy."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Sounds of explosions and gunfire accompany the opening credits. A young man in his 20s stands in front of the smoking hulk of a jetliner. Peering into the distance, he sees something alarming...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) No, no, no, no - no, no.

MONDELLO: ...Then he's sent flying backwards through the air by an explosion. As the smoke clears, you see he's dangling from a wire beneath a crane. A clapboard appears with the date 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And cut.

MONDELLO: Otis is making a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, unintelligible) Mark.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And marker.

MONDELLO: Otis has been doing this since he was a kid. Back then, he was getting hit with pies in the face, not fake shrapnel. But the effect was the same. It's taught him to play hard both on- and off-screen.

Off-screen that means drinking and driving, which leads to crashing and handcuffs...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY ")

HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) What am I being arrested for?

MONDELLO: ...And to detox and rehab, which he resists almost instinctively.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Stop avoiding trauma reminders that get you triggered.

HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) I avoid trauma reminders. My whole work's required - motivated by trauma reminders.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I'm talking about triggers that make your distress levels unmanageable and result in violence.

HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) Like what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Well, whatever makes you angry - that's a good place to start. I saw your tests, and you have clear signs of PTSD.

HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) No, I don't. From what?

MONDELLO: From a childhood spent in the care of an abusive alcoholic father, for one thing. Dad, a onetime rodeo clown, is in some senses still a clown on Otis' movie sets - volatile, angry, a womanizer - and only a sometime defender of his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

SHIA LABEOUF: (As James Lort) Think it through. Play the tape out. What's your mother got a job for?

NOAH JUPE: (As Young Otis Lort) Just in case.

LABEOUF: (As James Lort) In case what? In case what?

JUPE: (As Young Otis Lort) I don't know.

LABEOUF: (As James Lort) In case you fail. In case it don't...

JUPE: (As Young Otis Lort) No, no.

LABEOUF: (As James Lort) ...Work out. Yes, man. She's filling your head full of fear. I don't never do that. Do I? I pump you full of strength 'cause we're on a team, and I know you got what it takes. You're a star, and I know it. That's why I'm here. I'm your cheerleader, Honey Boy.

MONDELLO: Shia LaBeouf, who wrote this script, experienced pretty much all of this in real life, which makes "Honey Boy" a - what shall we call it? - an autobiopic (ph). And LaBeouf is also playing the father here, which could have come across as a stunt or maybe a case of acting as therapy. But in director Alma Har'el's telling, which is fast-paced and caustic, his casting serves to deepen what is already a distressingly realistic, often heartbreaking story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HONEY BOY")

LABEOUF: (As James Lort) How do you think it feels to have my son paying me? How do you think that feels?

JUPE: (As Young Otis Lort) You wouldn't be here if I didn't pay you.

MONDELLO: Otis is the central character played by "A Quiet Place's" Noah Jupe as a seemingly well-adjusted and mature 12-year-old, then by Lucas Hedges as a self-destructive, self-medicating 22-year-old. But LaBeouf is the one you can't take your eyes off in a vehicle that, despite being modeled on his own childhood, avoids special pleading. In real life, the performer has been mocked for his off-screen behavior as much as he's been praised for his always capable performances. He has also pushed back against celebrity culture in performance art pieces that are snarky and strange and often self-lacerating.

Here, however, he's done something more personal and at least seemingly more revealing, embodying and bringing empathy to the father who caused him so much pain. By the end, even though the film is not, strictly speaking, about LaBeouf, I felt I understood him better. That may be the point, but "Honey Boy" feels more like artful storytelling than like therapy.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.