The searching that sprang from a court-appointed stint in rehab haunts every frame of "Honey Boy," a dreamlike autobiographical exorcism written by self-styled enfant terrible Shia LaBeouf -- and finessed with director Alma Har'el into a film starring LaBeouf -- of the actor's childhood as the son of an addict and the toxic cycles that ensued.
The result is at once a touching requiem and a work of forgiveness, both for a father struggling with his demons all those years ago and the grown son who now peers into the mirror. Buoyed by sensitive and ferocious ensemble turns, "Honey Boy" is a cinematic salve for a tortured soul, in many regards a powerful vehicle for its star-writer-subject and a vibrant narrative debut for documentary and video artist Har'el.
LaBeouf jumps into a role many would run screaming from: He turns into his own dad. Under sideburns, a receding mullet and a hard-lived paunch, quixotic charm dripping from his Southern-tinged twang, he slips into the skin of James Lort, the mercurial ex-con father and guardian to precocious kid actor Otis Lort -- a fictionalized version of the younger LaBeouf, portrayed as a budding 12-year-old TV star by Noah Jupe ("A Quiet Place").
But it's Lucas Hedges, who plays Otis at the much angrier age of 22, that we meet first. The reedy and redheaded rising actor Oscar-nominated for "Manchester by the Sea" looks nothing like LaBeouf yet nails his mannerisms, his voice, his physicality and restless energy. The likeness of spirit is uncanny as the film opens on the adult Otis, a young Hollywood star at work on the set of an action megamovie, where stunt wires hurtle him backward as he shouts scripted screams of protest, take after take.
Otis has been so strapped in and yanked around his whole life that it's subconscious relief to drown himself in alcohol later, alone in his trailer. Some monsters are even harder to fight than giant space robots. Drink, rage, repeat.
While his life might seem a picture of Hollywood success, Otis is clearly careening out of control. In a cannily edited opening montage, Har'el and editors Dominic LaPerriere and Monica Salazar cover in shorthand what you may or may not already know about the real LaBeouf: The "Transformers" blockbusters, the indie dramas, and the tabloid-fodder arrests that earned him an unenviable brand of Hollywood infamy, undermining what career strides he was making.
After a late-night crash in which he flips his car and, later, a profanity-laced drunken arrest that lands him in rehab (both modeled after LaBeouf's real-life brushes with the law), "Honey Boy" unfolds as Otis begrudgingly moves into a group facility where he rejects the niceties of his roommate Percy (comedian-turned-actor Byron Bowers) and antagonizes the staff (including a scene-stealing Martin Starr).
Otis is a smart young man stuck in a cycle of self-destruction, and while he knows it, he doesn't know why. "I'm an egomaniac with an inferiority complex," he snipes at his therapist, Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), bouncing off the walls with feral frustration. "I'm a professional schizophrenic," he says of his chosen vocation, to which fellow actors might say: Touche.
Informed that he's showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, he instinctively denies the possibility: "From what?" he hisses.
Crashing between time lines and dream sequences as Otis revisits his past, "Honey Boy" becomes a collage of memories filmed in naturalistic observation by cinematographer Natasha Braier. The deeper Otis claws into his walled-off pain, the closer he gets to reckoning with his father and the long, toxic shadow the man cast.