By Anna Husted EBS FILM CRITIC
“Do you know how to close a door gently?” Otis’ rehab counselor asks him. “You pull with one hand and push with the other,” Otis responds. “Honey Boy” is full of contradictions like this one because our protagonist, Otis, feels conflicted about belonging in this world.
“Honey Boy” is a semi-autobiographical film written by actor Shia Lebeouf while he was in court-mandated rehab, and is based on his childhood and relationship with his father. We meet Otis (Lucas Hedges) on the set of an action blockbuster—for Lebeouf it’s the “Transformers” franchise—just before he goes into rehab following a drunk driving accident. Otis is angry and as he explores his anger with his counselors he discovers it stems from his father’s anger and how his father treated him as a kid.
The film flashes between older Otis and younger Otis (an incredible performance by Noah Jupe). Young Otis is a child actor living with his dad (played by Shia Lebeouf) in a motel so they can be close to set while Otis films outlandish scenes for an unnamed movie or a TV show. Unspoken details like these are what give “Honey Boy” a this-could-be-any-child-actor feel.
While the script is a deeply personal love letter to his dad, Lebeouf keeps specifics vague enough that we can relate to Otis or his father. Lebeouf’s script, through Jupe and Hedges, shows us the struggle of what expressing your feelings as a kid looks like—young Otis doesn’t have the words to tell his dad that he both hates and loves him.
In one scene we see young Otis looking into the room watching his dad watch him on their hotel’s TV screen. On the TV, Otis’ television dad tells Otis’s character that he loves him no matter what. Outside the hotel room, Otis is crying in the shadows because he wants his own father to say those words to him, something they both struggle with off screen when the emotions are not scripted.
While “Honey Boy” has touches of melodrama, its sincerity and tight-paced shots give it an unvarnished authenticity. The film moves quickly from close-ups to overhead establishing shots, leaving little time to get bogged down in the melodrama. Director Alma Har’el puts Lebeouf’s script to screen in a respectful and fun way despite its heavy subject matter.
I have been a huge Shia Lebeouf fan since his days on “Even Stevens.” Lebeouf and I are close in age and I watched him grow up on screen as I did. Lebeouf is a wonderful and patient actor who shows genuine anger on screen in his short but circumspect career. He is always the “good guy,” but with flaws and emotions. “Honey Boy” is his first screenplay and is an inspiring work.
In one of the final counseling scenes, an older Otis tells his counselor, “The only thing my dad ever gave me is pain. And you want to take that away.”
While we are granted with a strange and beautiful reconciliation scene between Otis and his dad, the end of the film feels unfinished, giving us a sense that Otis will always be navigating how to manage his anger and use it well. He will never quite be complete, but it’s not because he won’t continue to try.
“Honey Boy” is in theaters and available on Amazon Prime.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found skiing down a mountain or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s reading, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.