An adult Otis Lort (a rough, volatile Lucas Hedges) is trapped in yet another day of court-ordered therapy during his rehab stay. He’s asked to reflect on his past, to write it all out, but he doesn’t understand why. “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain,” he says to his therapist in the midst of a balancing act of aggression and vulnerability, “and you want to take that away?”
For 90 minutes, we’re forced to watch a troubled, 20-something Otis come to terms with the fact that his father is the one who has brought him here. The “here” in question refers to an entertainment career that wound up buried beneath heaps of controversy and complications he can’t stop himself from stumbling into. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, yet there is no real-life Otis Lort. There is, however, writer Shia Labeouf, the titular honey boy — a childhood pet-name Otis’ father speaks with adoration and disdain in equal measures — who conceived this screenplay during his own court-ordered therapy while in rehab.
This is not the vanity project it seems to be at face value. Honey Boy is unfiltered and sincere to a sickening degree. Labeouf doubles up on jobs in Honey Boy, also playing James Lort, a stand-in for his own father. An explosive, abusive, alcoholic sex offender who is sickly sweet to every woman he embarrasses himself in front of, yet meets his son’s attempts to hold hands with hostility. Labeouf completely disappears into the role and what emerges is horrific.
When the film opens, James, with his bandana and beer-gut, rattles off old tales of his days as a rodeo clown with fast-talking excitement — he seems almost garish, a character out of cartoon who doesn’t fit into the devastatingly real world director Alma Har’el has brought to the screen. It’s impossible to believe. Quite quickly, this view of him is abandoned — no, it’s hard to see him as a silly caricature when the film is hinged on him screaming at his own son, belittling him about anything he can find to pick at. This film feels as claustrophobic as the tiny run-down home James and Otis are confined to; like Otis, you can’t escape the immense trauma he faces. Honey Boy is a portrait of trauma just about leaping off of the wall; it’s as painful to watch as it must have been to make.
The film bounces between adult Otis and the past he is reflecting on, the days in which he starred in an Even Stevens-esque show at the age of 12, baby-faced yet swearing and cigarette-smoking – it’s all he’s known for his entire life, after all. Noah Jupe as 12-year-old Otis is a revelation. Jupe is beyond the “good for a child actor” label we toss around — he plays the role with an untouchable emotional maturity and strength. His naturalistic performance is as raw as Labeouf’s writing; watching the two of them play off of each other, exploring the depths of their pain, is haunting and entrancing all at once. Young Otis is also captivating in scenes with the Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), a sex worker and fellow abuse victim who offers the only hand to hold he must have seen in his young life. The two of them speak little during their time together, but their scenes are the only soft ones in the film and some of the most touching to come out of 2019.
The only time the film loses steam is with adult Otis. Hedges does a great job with what he’s given, but it’s frankly not that much; the people and moments that surround him do not captivate in the same way young Otis’ world does. The other half of the film is so strong that Otis’ rehab stay is pale in comparison.
Parallels are frequently drawn between the two eras of Otis, creating a heartbreaking mirror image both sides would like to shatter. Editing is one of Honey Boy’s many powerful weapons; at one point, we bounce between adult Otis drinking and young Otis smoking, a monologue of James speaking at Alcoholics Anonymous about his own struggles with addiction over-top of these scenes the only thing tying them together.
Yet, in the same way, when James finds himself getting high in a strip club bathroom, beating his 12-year-old son to tears for having the audacity to stand up to him, parallels are drawn for Labeouf between his fiction and the reality that inspired it; it’s cathartic and painful all at once. But Labeouf is not playing a monster — he refuses to. There is no soft side to be found in James Lort, but he digs for sympathy wherever he can. He plays him as multifaceted as he can muster to force us all to see every side of the story. Even when there isn’t much to find, the effort doesn’t go unnoticed.
But this is where the beauty lies in Honey Boy — it’s all heart. The disturbing content of Honey Boy is handled with tenderness. It’s a neon-lit open wound being broadcast for 94 minutes. By the end, even if it’s still stinging and burning and bleeding, it’s bandaged. Not better, but healing.
Honey Boy is presented by the Brock University Film Society (BUFS). It will have two more screenings at The Film House in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on February 6 for BUFS and on Feb. 9, both at 7:00 p.m.