Wednesday, November 20, 2019

'Honey Boy' packs an emotional punch

Shia LaBeouf takes a semi-autobiographical look at his troubled youth.
I couldn’t tell whether Shia LaBeouf's Honey Boy should be taken as an act of revenge by an aggrieved son against an abusive father, a confessional about LaBeouf's struggles with alcohol or an exercise in deeply immersive acting. Maybe it’s all three.

Whatever its objectives, LaBeouf's Honey Boy, which he wrote and stars in and which has been directed by Alma Ha’rel, is one of those aggressively emotional movies that almost dares you to look away from the screen. And props to LaBeouf for not trying to direct: playing his own father and writing the screenplay must have been job enough.

LaBeouf's semi-autobiographical foray explores how the travails of a child actor carry over into young adulthood, linking Honey Boy to a list of movies that operate in a world of amped-up emotional realism. Think Florida Project.

LaBeouf's James lives with his son Otis in a rundown Los Angeles motel, which is frequented by drifters and prostitutes. Otis (a terrific Noah Jupe) supports his penniless father with his acting. Aside from a brief phone call, his mother is absent from view.

As a former convict, James has no visible means of support; he rides his son mercilessly, but it also becomes clear that he loves Otis — even if he can’t manage his volatile emotions. In truth, James has no idea about how to be a father. He either tries to be Otis' friend or plays the role of tough-love mentor.

Like a fighter who relies on jabs, James takes verbal shots at Otis. He may believe he's toughening the boy but James' non-stop cruelty becomes increasingly difficult to take. When it comes to needling, James is a champ.

With his hairline pulled into recessionary retreat, LaBeouf gives a totally committed performance as a man who's part trickster, part self-aware failure and part rodeo clown, a job that James once held.

All of this unfolds against the background of Otis’ show-business life, which includes appearances on TV sitcoms and roles in action movies. LaBeouf, of course, became a star in several Transformer movies.

The story's timeline shifts between two periods in Otis' life. Lucas Hedges plays the adult Otis. It’s not always Jupe and Hedges look quite different, but Hedges establishes the necessary emotional connection with the character of young Otis and the shift from one actor to the other proves only minimally distracting.

The frame for the story involves Otis’ stint in rehab after an arrest for drunk driving. Otis meets with a therapist (Laura San Giacomo) and makes friends with a veteran of rehab (Byron Bowers). Reluctantly, he accepts the fact that he needs help. He also begins writing, presumably the script for the movie we're watching.

In scenes at the motel, young Otis forms a tender bond with a teenage hooker (FKA Twigs). He also experiences the humiliation of watching his father brutalize a well-intentioned man (Clifton Collins Jr.) who has connected with Otis though the Big Brother program.

It’s tough to emerge from Honey Boy without feeling a bit battered, and not everyone will feel a need to share in this experience, but you hope for LaBeouf's sake that Honey Boy was cathartic enough to allow him to move on.

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