"Honey Boy" (2019)- Movie Review

Directed by Alma Har’el
Written by Shia LaBeouf
Starring Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf and Lucas Hedges

‘A Powerful Cinematic Memoir’

Few actors in Hollywood have had a childhood as painful as Shia LaBeouf. A former child star, LaBeouf had a troubled upbringing that nearly damaged his career. Raised by an abusive father, he was constantly under extreme pressure to succeed in the industry. To come to grips with his past trauma, LaBeouf wrote about his experiences during his brief stint in rehab. However, he never intended his life to be made into a feature-length film. After all, it is not easy for an actor to share his personal story on the big-screen. With its themes of child abuse, neglect and trauma, LaBeouf’s story isn’t meant to appeal towards mainstream audiences. It’s no surprise, then, that the actor’s life has never been depicted on the big-screen.

Now, Alma Har’el brings Shia LaBeouf’s controversial life story to the big-screen for the first time in her latest film “Honey Boy”. A bold, gripping and deeply moving autobiographical drama, it offers a fascinating look at the childhood of the renowned actor. With her feature narrative debut, documentarian Alma Har’el has crafted an authentic account of Shia LaBeouf’s stormy childhood. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, engrossing storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is a highly effective cinematic memoir. Although “Honey Boy” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from a slow-pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers heartfelt entertainment that will satisfy fans of art-house Cinema.

Based on Shia LaBeouf’s personal experiences, “Honey Boy” traces the toxic childhood of a tormented actor and his struggles with stardom. Noah Jupe stars in the lead role as Otis Lort, a twelve-year old child actor that is struggling to achieve fame. Otis lives in a small apartment with his father James (Shia LaBeouf), an abusive alcoholic that chastises him. However, Otis’ life forever changes when he is sent to a rehab facility as a young adult. As Otis reflects on his painful past, he struggles to reconcile his complicated relationship with his father.

It’s a heartbreaking autobiographical story that is expertly told by director Alma Har’el. Har’el is a female filmmaker that is best known for her genre-bending documentaries (ex. 2011’s “Bombay Beach”). “Honey Boy”, however, marks her first narrative feature and foray into the personal life of a movie-star. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to bring Shia LaBeouf’s turbulent childhood to the big-screen, but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Har’el draws viewers into the life of a troubled actor that is haunted by his traumatic past. From intimate close-ups to tense long shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Har’el’s decision to shoot the film using hand-held camera is risky, but it works tremendously. It gives the film a sense of intimacy and authenticity that is missing from most autobiographical dramas. Working alongside cinematographer Natasha Braier, Har’el creates a stunning film in which each frame is an opulent feast for the eyes. Har’el excels at recreating the formative childhood of a movie-star, and her latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of stardom do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Honey Boy”. The film is extremely well-written and offers an insightful look at the struggles faced by child stars in the industry. Shia LaBeouf’s screenplay is spectacular, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with fascinating characters, naturalistic dialogue and non-linear storytelling, the script elevates the movie to another level. LaBeouf’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to tell his story in a non-linear fashion. In Hollywood, most movies that are based on true stories follow a formulaic structure and unfold in the order of events. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Honey Boy”. The film deftly switches back and forth between two timelines: Otis’ stint in rehab and his childhood in the past. Through this non-linear structure, LaBeouf crafts a film that is utterly unpredictable. Non-linear storytelling is a risky technique to employ in an autobiographical drama, but it works immensely in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, LaBeouf keeps viewers engrossed in the world of a child actor.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast. Every star gets the chance to shine, but the film is mainly a stunning showcase for its two leads.

Noah Jupe delivers a star-making performance as Otis Lort. Following his breakout turn in “A Quiet Place”, Jupe has proven to be an astounding actor with a knack for playing troubled teenagers. With “Honey Boy”, however, he takes on his most mature role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a traumatized child star with daddy issues. It’s an emotionally demanding role that puts the actor through the wringer, but Jupe pulls it off effortlessly. With captivating expressions, he conveys the fear, angst and confusion of a child that is neglected by his father. It’s a powerful performance from one of the most promising child actors working today.

Shia LaBeouf is sensational in the role of a mean-spirited father that envies his son’s success. This is the actor unlike you’ve ever seen him before: intense, charismatic and utterly mesmerizing in the most personal role of his career. It takes a great deal of bravery for an actor to portray a fictional version of his own father. However, LaBeouf pulls it off with ease. For instance, the scene in which he has a tense argument with his son represents the most emotional and vulnerable work that LaBeouf has ever done. It’s a marvelous performance that marks a huge comeback for the actor following a long career hiatus.

Although “Honey Boy” is undeniably an unforgettable autobiographical drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the pacing department. Har’el’s decision to split the film into two timelines is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the pacing, and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this technique, the rehab section of the film is less engaging than the childhood flashbacks. Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that the movie may not appeal to everyone. The film tackles controversial topics such as child abuse, drug addiction and prostitution that will upset some viewers. Viewers that are sensitive towards graphic scenes of abuse may not enjoy the movie. In light of its harrowing themes, “Honey Boy” is one of those films that may not appeal towards commercial audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of autobiographical dramas will definitely enjoy “Honey Boy” and so will movie-goers seeking heartwarming entertainment. A therapeutic piece of filmmaking, it proves that Shia LaBeouf’s personal life is worthy of cinematic treatment. At a time when Shia LaBeouf remains an enigmatic public figure, it’s a stirring reminder that the stories of controversial celebrities are worth sharing on the big-screen.

4/5 stars

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