REVIEW: Shia LeBeouf’s ‘Honey Boy’ is sweet but insubstantial

Shia LeBeouf’s performance in the semi-autobiographical film “Honey Boy” weaves together an intricate narrative that transitions between his time as an adult in rehab and troubled childhood. (Photo from IMDb)

“Go into the woods and scream as loud as you can,” Alec (Martin Starr), a well-meaning rehab counselor tells Otis (Lucas Hedges), early on in “Honey Boy.” Otis heeds the advice and we later see him out in the forest yelling, letting it all out, intercut with Otis as a child (Noah Jupe) doing the same thing. It’s pure catharsis — a microcosm of “Honey Boy” as a whole.

Written by Shia LaBeouf, “Honey Boy” is a semi-autobiographical film about LaBeouf (under the pseudonym Otis) and his relationship with his father. It’s told through two timelines — Otis as an adult, in a rehab center due to his struggles with alcoholism and 12-year-old Otis living with his father and working as a child actor. Both timelines are united by Otis attempting to navigate his rocky relationship with his abusive father, who is played by LaBeouf himself.

LaBeouf wrote the script for the film while in rehab and, rumor has it, he shopped it around anonymously. Director Alma Har’el eventually picked it up and persuaded LaBeouf, who had taken a step away from acting, to come back to play his father. It’s clear that “Honey Boy” is an intensely personal project and that’s where its greatest strengths lie. There are moments of intense empathy and quiet beauty littered throughout the film, mostly due to stellar performances. 

LaBeouf brings his all to his role and plays all the complex emotions, both on a textual and metatextual level, exceedingly well. He harnesses a type of roughness and hypermasculinity to a dazzling effect. Jupe, younger Otis, is fantastic as well, combining childlike naivete and precociousness, mutating it into a child forced to grow up too soon. There’s a particularly interesting scene with the girl next door, played by FKA twigs, performing a complex, intimate dance together. There is very little dialogue in the sequence, which makes it all the more impressive — the performances are all facial expression and movement, allowing both of them to convey abstract emotions through pure physicality.

Har’el’s direction is great as well. The film opens on an incredibly edited whirlwind of a sequence, taking the viewer through multiple moments in Otis’ life, teaching you about the character quickly and efficiently. She commands an empathetic camera, often moving with the characters, putting you directly in their headspace as they reveal themselves to you. Har’el also creates a very unique mood, again connected to how personal this story is. It’s difficult to put into words, but it feels as if she creates another world where the rules are just a little bit different.

While the personal nature of the film yields some incredible moments, it is also the film’s greatest flaw. “Honey Boy” is liberating, but it isn’t much else. It feels like verite in a sense because there is little to propel the story forward. There’s conflict and things happen, but there is a noticeable lack of meaningful growth. That could partly be due to some dissonance between the two timelines — we spend the majority of our time witnessing the father-son relationship from the younger perspective, so the older Otis in rehab remains underdeveloped. 

The film ultimately feels static for much of its (short) runtime, leading to an emotional disconnect. It was certainly impactful for LaBeouf, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the audience, especially because it feels as if he’s simply releasing these emotions rather than meaningfully working through them. It’s more a depiction of his relationship with his father than it is a film about said relationship. 

“Honey Boy,” ultimately, is that scream in the forest. There is a moment of beauty. Release. Letting it all out even if you don’t know what exactly to make of it. It echoes against the trees, fading into the night sky. Going, going, gone.