Flashing to the year 1995, we meet Jupe's Otis as he's taking a pie in the face on the set of a TV sitcom (the cable series "Even Stevens" made LaBeouf a breakout teen star). The family breadwinner at the age of 12, young Otis puts his natural talents to use as a child actor and stockpiles craft services snacks and per diems for when he goes home at night -- if "home" is the right word for the rundown San Fernando Valley motel room he shares with his father, James, whom he pays to be his on-set chaperone.
There's love but scant tenderness in life with James, a veteran, addict and onetime rodeo clown who runs lines with Otis and imparts imagination and whimsy but constantly undercuts and belittles him, too. Jealous of his son's success, in which he can only see his own failures, James is controlling at his best and emotionally and physically abusive at his worst.
It's an enormous credit to LaBeouf and Jupe, who was just shy of 13 when "Honey Boy" began filming, that the alchemy of their scenes together come so marvelously and achingly alive in a coming-of-age tale that feels fairly familiar in its emotional goals.
Jupe matches LaBeouf pound for pound as Otis tries desperately to nurture his father into the kind of dad he will never become. Har'el confidently rests the heart of "Honey Boy" on the shoulders of her youngest star, and he rises to the task. But the film doesn't let Otis walk alone.
As in her 2011 film "Bombay Beach," an intimate documentary about people living on the margins in the Salton Sea, the director finds love and humanity in what some might see as a hopeless place.
It's comforting that "Honey Boy" keeps its young charge company even when no one else is paying attention, and it's somewhat startling that Jupe delivers the film's most genuine and layered performance. That work is highlighted by a tense scene in which he relays barbed messages between his father and estranged mother over the phone, and another in which he subtly mimics his dad, bumming a cigarette and raising his voice in an attempt to speak James' own broken love language.
LaBeouf, meanwhile, makes the humanity of his father impossible to ignore -- a feat made more heartbreaking by the fact that you can never not see LaBeouf under all that James. Embracing its twee touches, including a tinkling playful score by Alex Somers, the film finds its way into an eerie, magical fantasy space that blurs the line between fact and fiction.
For the real LaBeouf and those who might sees themselves in his struggle -- including Har'el, whose approach was informed by her own experience as a child of an addict -- one hopes "Honey Boy" sparks healing. But for those who have watched the actor's career closely, it also leaves conspicuous gaps curiously unanswered.
Can we find confidence in a narrative of LaBeouf's own telling, for example, that leaves out his more confrontational works of performance art like #ALLMYMOVIES, in which he gauged how strangers watched him watching his own movies, or the racially charged part of the rant that accompanied the 2017 arrest that sent him to rehab? What would the preening online film critic protagonist of his 2013 short film "HowardCantour.com" -- a project he got dinged for plagiarizing from graphic novelist Dan Clowes -- make of "Honey Boy"?
For Har'el, "Honey Boy" announces a promising entree into fiction filmmaking that dovetails with the more experimental directions she brought to previous visual forms. The empathy she brings to the film and its difficult subject emanates from the screen, and how she may yet push boundaries going forward feels like an exciting prospect.
For LaBeouf, "Honey Boy" may well be an act of catharsis, understanding and accountability; whether or not it truly serves those roles, only he will know. Should it matter to the rest of us? In Har'el's hands that vision becomes at once confessional and curative, much bigger than one actor, one man or one boy's story alone.
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