Actor Shia LaBeouf has been a bit of a wildcard over the last decade or so. But for every screaming YouTube video he released, every blockbuster schlock-fest he appeared in or Daniel Clowes comic he plagiarized, he managed to churn out a halfway decent or memorable performance (Peanut Butter Falcon from earlier this year is pretty OK and say what you will about Nymphomaniac—that shit'll haunt you). Has he been an unhinged Hollywood lunatic, or is he secretly some kind of marketing genius uninterested in whether the attention he receives is good or bad? Newly released Honey Boy might provide some insight, but it's still hard to say and ultimately lacks a satisfying conclusion.
In the film, which LaBeouf wrote and which is loosely based on his life, he plays a version of his own father Jeffrey (James in the movie) against Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) as a fictionalized version of himself, here named Otis. We cut between 1995 and 2005—a young Otis on the cusp of early childhood stardom and grappling to connect with anyone, especially his father—and then a post-DWI Otis forced into court-mandated rehab to avoid jail time. 1995 Otis employs his father as a means to stay close, 2005 Otis deals with the aftermath of the abusive paternal relationship; the alcoholism in his family that comes to a head the more lonely he feels and the pain planted all those years ago catch up.
Jupe manages the performance of his admittedly short career, careening wildly from tersely delivered barbs meant to sting to age-appropriate confusion over why his dad acts the way he does. Living in a rundown hotel, young Otis forges a strong relationship with a neighboring resident credited only as Shy Girl (singer FKA Twigs, whose small but pivotal turn will surely generate buzz) who we're led to believe is a sex worker. LaBeouf and director Alma Har'el succeed here in leading us to believe the worst will happen, but young Otis's desperation for a parent figure feels more vulnerable and real in scenes with Shy Girl than it does in the adversarial ones with his dad. Hedges's scenes feel less enthralling, however, and it's rarely as interesting to see 22-year-old Otis screaming in the woods or stomping his feet during therapy sessions as it is in the simpler moments with Jupe.
It's just as well, because it's LaBeouf's movie and he can do what he wants—and he does disappear so deeply into the role of his father that you straight-up forget it's him. LaBeouf's real-life dad has reportedly seen Honey Boy and the two are apparently on the path toward reconciliation, and it seems the film has been healing for its writer and star as well. But then, it does start to feel awfully self-important, and we don't really get a payoff to so much exposition. It's like we're just supposed to know that LaBeouf had a career after 2005, which of course we do—you remember 2007's Transformers, right?
+Jupe and FKA Twigs
-Hedges and the lack of payoff
Directed by Har'el
With LaBeouf, Jupe, Hedges and FKA Twigs
Violet Crown, R, 94 min.