Whenever actors who started their careers as children give interviews I wait for them to talk about money. Sarah Jessica Parker has stated that the considerable income she generated as a minor was, cryptically enough, “absorbed into the family.” The new film Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el with a script by star Shia LaBeouf (based on his own life as a child and adult actor) doesn’t indulge in Parker’s euphemism.
LaBeouf play James, an abusive, neglectful, lying parent who is also a stand-in for LaBeouf’s own father. He asks his son Otis, played by Noah Jupe (the older son in A Quiet Place) “How do you think it feels to have my son paying me?” Otis, a vulnerable, skinny 12-year-old, replies with the steely resignation of an adult, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you.”
Although much of the coverage of Har’el’s first narrative feature (she’s made two experimental documentary features previously, including LoveTrue) has focused on LaBeouf, Har’el, who won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance for this film, here continues the use of surreal imagery that made her documentaries so striking and emotionally resonant.
Otis acts on TV in parts big enough that young girls recognize him, but lives in a seedy, residential motel with his father, and ends up playing both of his divorced parents on the phone because neither one will speak directly to the other. At one point, young Jupe captures both the blustery cadence of his Dad (as I imagine LaBeouf does: most of us can do pretty good impressions of our parents) and the pathos of his mother (voiced by Natasha Lyonne). The scene is an exemplary part of the astounding performance Jupe gives throughout — a paradox, as everything we see in the film suggests children shouldn’t be in show business.
Some of the scenes (sumptuously shot by Natasha Braier, also the cinematographer on the great Argentine film XXY) have obvious roots in Har’el’s previous films, like those that reveal the surprising, otherworldly — and fleeting — beauty of a run-down strip bar. One of the main subjects of LoveTrue was the young, white dancer Blake Gurtler; that film explored both what she liked about her job and the trepidation she felt about being stuck in the same work forever (a fear the documentary made manifest in her much-older coworker).
The sex worker in Honey Boy, Shy Girl, (British musician FKA twigs) doesn’t harbor anything like Blake’s complexity: she’s the trope with a heart of gold who establishes a platonic, but still creepy, relationship with the pre-pubescent Otis. The film doesn’t treat its other characters of color much better: Shy Girl’s Black Latinx family are noisy troublemakers and adult Otis (Lucas Hedges, once again showing that he’s not leading man material) has a roommate in rehab, Percy, (Byron Bowers) who’s depicted as the archetypal Funny Black Friend, with no storyline of his own. Although the film focuses on Otis and his father, some more scenes with other characters could have easily replaced at least a couple of LaBeouf”s tedious, repetitive harangues.
LaBeouf’s story of a child living with one parent who abused the other also echoes LoveTrue, in which Victory Boyd, a young Black woman, and her many siblings remain with her father after her mother leaves him. The key difference between these two families: LoveTrue lets us hear the story Victory tells herself in order to stay — and shows us why she would still think of her father as a nice guy. It’s not unusual for directors to give short shrift to characters of color or sex workers or histories of domestic violence, but Har’el’s previous work makes the lack of nuance in these areas of Honey Boy particularly disappointing.
But the film gets several things right: its hyped-up early scenes, for example, in which we see grown-up Otis in the hours leading up to his stay in rehab: a stressful day on the set, a lot of whiskey, a blonde costar and an errant lit cigarette all lead to the car crash before his arrest, and are edited together in a whirl of hip-hop on the soundtrack, showing off Har’el’s music video roots. But Har’el’s flashy style doesn’t keep her from connecting with 12-year-old Otis’s wary, shining eyes, when he tries to get what he needs from his father and always, always, fails.