Director: Alma Ha’rel
Writer: Shia LeBeouf
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie more steeped in therapeutic concepts than Honey Boy. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of actor Shia LaBeouf’s abusive upbringing as a child performer in thrall to his alcoholic father; his subsequent struggles with addiction; and his recovery in rehab. To a certain degree, it’s also a movie that reflects on its own making. LaBeouf wrote the script, or at least started it, while undergoing exposure therapy for PTSD, and he stars in the film playing a character based on his own father.
The film toggles between two timelines: the present, in which a young actor, Otis, (Lucas Hedges) undergoes treatment for PTSD in court-mandated rebab; and the past, which focuses on a time in Otis’s career as a child actor when he was living alone with his father, James, in a motel, and supporting them on his salary. The film suggests that this particular moment in Otis’s childhood is being revisited as part of this therapy; in dreamlike sequences, we see a grown Otis wandering the motel grounds and interacting with characters from his past, including James. But, for the most part, the two timelines remain separate.
Usually in therapeutic narratives, the story of the trauma is more interesting than the story of the recovery. Honey Boy makes the recovering more interesting. I appreciated how much this movie was willing to delve into the specifics of Otis’s therapy, showing encounters with two different therapists, who use different therapeutic techniques; they’re not just characters employed to bring out the details of Otis’s past. We also see Otis’s typical initial resistance to treatment, and the difficulty he has in accessing his past. There’s a narrative arc to his time there, and emotional risk. By contrast, the scenes from Otis’s childhood were a little bit repetitive, and even though I was full of sympathy for young Otis (Noah Jupe) I never felt fully immersed in his world.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t as moved by the childhood sections of this movie. It may be that they were not enough from a child’s point of view. We get a lot of Otis’s father, who is a recovering addict, a felon, and former rodeo clown who feels defeated by life, and by his son’s success. LaBeouf plays him as someone who wants to be a good parent but doesn’t have the maturity to be a caregiver. This might have been too generous of a reading; it wasn’t clear to me how much self-awareness the father actually possessed — then again, it’s probably not clear to LaBeouf. These are the pitfalls of playing a character based on a parent. James made the most sense to me in the scenes when he became incoherently angry. There I saw a man so lost in his rage that he could not see the child in front of him.
Otis’s therapy is most effective for PTSD, a diagnosis that seems to be a source of embarrassment for him. He believes he should not be allowed a malady associated with soldiers when he’s just an actor, imitating other people’s traumas. This is surely something that LaBeouf himself felt at the beginning of his treatment, but as the author of this screenplay, he has come out on the other side and is clear-eyed about the trauma he endured. Both he and director Alma Ha’rel understand that his PTSD is real, the result of childhood abuse and the cumulative effects of working in psychologically destabilizing environments. The first five minutes are a series of jump cuts that show how chaotic Otis’s emotional life has become as he goes from acting out traumatic scenes on film, to decompressing in his trailer with alcohol, to acting again, and back to the trailer, all of it blurring together. I admired the way that Honey Boy tried to bring some clarity to this blurriness, but because of its therapeutic frame, I watched it with a certain level of detachment and never really felt the emotional highs and lows of the story.