LaBeouf explores his own childhood in ‘Honey Boy’

Lindsey Bahr & Jake Coyle

AP – Honey Boy will break your heart. It hardly matters if you’ve never given a second thought to the circumstances of Shia LaBeouf’s life, his childhood or his rocky early adult years.

But this is the kind of universally moving work that can only emerge from something immensely specific and personal.

In the broadest sense, it’s a portrait of a boy whose father doesn’t, or can’t, love him the way he needs.

But broad isn’t the point. The salacious tabloid sell is that LaBeouf wrote this script about his life while in rehab.

It was therapy, but besides the location, it’s not terribly unique that a storyteller might get some personal catharsis.

What separates Honey Boy from the standard confessional is the heart, precision and artfulness that LaBoeuf and Director Alma Har’el employ to tell this story.

A key element that makes this endeavour so brave and empathetic is that LaBeouf plays his own father, who in other hands may not have been rendered in such a complex and nuanced light.

His father is a Vietnam veteran, a registered sex offender and drug addict who also played manager to his son’s acting career.

In the film his name is James Lort. He’s got a receding hairline, John Lennon glasses and is emotionally and physically abusive to his kid, who he also clearly loves and cares about. He uses a motorcycle to transport his 10-year-old son Otis (played with a stunning worldliness by Noah Jupe) to and from the television show he’s starring on (a stand-in for Disney’s Even Stevens which LaBeouf started acting in when he was around 10).

A motorcycle is obviously a terribly precarious way to transport a young kid (and, cynically, your only source of income) on the treacherous freeways of Los Angeles, and yet these scenes are some of the most beautiful in the film: The dangerous ride is a moment of silence and peace in this turbulent relationship where the son gets to just cling to his father, who he trusts despite everything, and enjoy the thrill of the ride. It’s the whole movie in miniature.

ABOVE & BELOW: Noah Jupe and Shia LaBeouf in a scene from ‘Honey Boy’. PHOTO: AP

FROM LEFT: Shia LaBeouf, Director Alma Har’el and Lucas Hedges posing for a portrait to promote their film ‘Honey Boy’ during the London Film Festival

This is a father who gives his son contraband as a treat, but also demands adherence to child labour laws even when no one in a production will.

The bad outweighs the good, but perhaps thanks to LaBeouf’s performance, or the writing, you can’t help but grasp at any string of hope dangled — like any abusive relationship, really. Most importantly, he’s not the parent Otis needs. When Otis asks for affection or guidance, he’s met with hostility or mocking. When he tries to stand up for himself, it’s even worse.

Their rollercoaster existence goes into explaining why, when Otis is in his 20s (portrayed by Lucas Hedges) and in rebab, this young man who has never been to war is told that he has PTSD. The later years, in rehab, are not quite as effective or heartrending as the flashbacks, save for a rollicking opening montage showing Otis’ on and off-screen debauchery. But it does all come together nicely in its closing.

LABEOUF THOUGHT HE WAS FINISHED, THEN HE WROTE HONEY BOY

While in court-mandated rehab following his viral-video, racist-ranting 2017 arrest for public disorderly conduct, Shia LaBeouf put his childhood reflections into screenplay format. That’s just what he knew.

An actor since he was 10, LaBeouf’s life had been a series of screenplays. Some better than others. Few as raw and intimate as what he wrote.

It was intended as a therapeutic exercise to trace the roots of LaBeouf’s alcoholism (which led to that 2017 incident) and his diagnosed PTSD. He wrote about himself and his father. He hadn’t spoken to him in seven years. His dad, whose name is Jeffrey LaBeouf, had served in Vietnam and been a rodeo clown. While LaBeouf was a fast-rising child actor, he was his son’s paid chaperone. He was aggressively supportive, riddled with jealousy and, according to the film, occasionally abusive.

LaBeouf sent his pages to his friend, Director Alma Har’el. She at once responded that they had to turn it into a movie.

“I thought she was out of her mind,” said LaBeouf. “I didn’t think we could get funding. I didn’t think anybody was trying to make movies with me anymore. I was going to join the Peace Corps.”

Instead, Har’el found the funding and they made Honey Boy with an added wrinkle, urged on by Har’el: LaBeouf plays his father. It’s the most critically acclaimed film of LaBeouf’s career.

For even an actor known for performance-art stunts (remember the paper bag over his head ) and public displays of painful self-examination (LaBeouf once sat for a marathon of all his movies at New York’s Angelika Film Center, an experience he compares to flipping through your high school yearbook with strangers), Honey Boy is something else. The film is radically autobiographical for such a well-known movie star. As therapy writ large, it’s a striking exercise in empathy in which LaBeouf wrestles and ultimately comes to peace with his father. LaBeouf considers it an act of exorcism and liberation.

“There’s something freeing about this experience and also going a little bit crazy,” said LaBeouf. “Going a little bit crazy, I wish that on everyone. There’s something very freeing about going a little bit crazy. Crazy is freedom.”

Har’el first met LaBeouf after the actor, while rummaging in the Bob Dylan section of Los Angeles’ Amoeba Records, came across her dreamy quasi-documentary portrait of three residents living in a ghost town on the shores of the Salton Sea, Bombay Beach. LaBeouf executive produced her next film, 2016’s LoveTrue. In those and Honey Boy, Har’el has made a habit of bending gender and identity, capturing and deconstructing what she calls “the performance of self”.

Har’el thought LaBeouf’s first act, before they made the movie, should be to go talk to his father, who lives in Costa Rica. He did, read him the script and got his blessing, “both legally and spiritually” said Har’el. “We’re done fighting with each other,” said LaBeouf. “I missed him terribly. We missed each other. Way more than I want to be right, I want my dad.”

Their divisions, he said, came in part from politics but more deeply grew out of the period depicted in Honey Boy, when LaBeouf was starring on the Disney Channel show Even Stevens. To be closer to set, he lived for a time in a motel with his father. (LaBeouf’s parents are divorced.) Then a drug addict in recovery, LaBeouf’s father was in many ways ill-suited as a parent.

LaBeouf’s performance is a tender portrait of a damaged man who damaged his son, but who still gave him much. By placing himself in his father’s shoes, LaBeouf could see their life together through his dad’s perspective.

“My dad is a fighter, a survivor. He’s some kind of cockroach,” said LaBeouf. “It’s unbelievable how he’s able to stay afloat. I can’t believe he’s still alive. He’s a street poet. He’s cowboy culture. He’s Americana. He’s a soldier. He’s an artist. He’s a comedian. He’s a lover. He’s a beautiful man.”

Getting into character, LaBeouf, said began with finding his father’s voice. LaBeouf also went to unusual lengths to depict his dad’s physicality. “It changed the way I moved and the way I sat,” he said.

Regardless of props, dealing with a swaggering masculinity was part of the process, said the actor.

“I’ve had an aversion from alpha males for most of my life, which comes from my father,” said LaBeouf, himself an intense presence. “In doing this, I can sort of hold space for that energy and realise where it comes from. It’s quite sweet when you think about that overt alpha male energy. It comes from fear.”

In the film, Noah Jupe plays young Shia (‘Otis’ in the movie) and Lucas Hedges plays him more present day, including inside rehab. Hedges had never known LaBeouf before and he grants that, given the unusual circumstance of the production, “I don’t think the two of us ever figured out how to act with each other.”

Hedges said he was drawn to the movie by the courage of LaBeouf’s undertaking. He had endless questions for LaBeouf.

“There was no question that I was ever like, ‘Oh, I know him now’. There were so many things that were contradictory,” said Hedges. “But there was no line. It was like he wanted and relished the opportunity to share. He shares his whole life with the world — his deepest fears, his deepest dreams, his deepest insecurities.” LaBeouf was in the middle of filming another movie when he was arrested in 2017: Peanut Butter Falcon, which has been one of the year’s most successful indie releases. Making that film, especially spending time with his co-star Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, was also part of LaBeouf’s rehabilitation.

But while Honey Boy was obviously therapeutic for LaBeouf, Har’el emphasises no movie can vanquish such demons.

“Being an adult child of an alcoholic or being anybody that suffered from childhood trauma at a young age had their wires crossed when it comes to love and pain. It’s a lifelong journey,” said Har’el, whose father also struggles with alcoholism. “This film, you could say it’s therapeutic but really what it was is a very big opportunity to go into that room where all the trauma happened and see it from a different perspective.”

Har’el, LaBeouf said, is “by far” the best director he’s ever worked with. When she finished the film, he sent a link to his father and set up a web cam so he could watch him watching the movie.

“We just cried for like 90 minutes,” said LaBeouf. “And giggled and laughed.” At ceremony recently, LaBeouf accepted a screenwriting award for Honey Boy. He thanked his parents but also the Savannah, Georgia, police officer who arrested him for “changing my life”. The next day, LaBeouf said, the policeman called him to invite him fishing.

LaBeouf wasn’t eager to talk about the arrest again. He’s said it all before, he said. Some memories obviously still sting. But after Honey Boy, he granted, it’s hard to draw a line. “That’s the thing about exposing everything to the world,” said LaBeouf. “There’s nothing too personal anymore.”