On the set of “Transformers,” Otis (Lucas Hedges at 22) is attached to a wire which will yank him backwards for an effects shot. Later, out partying too heartily with his costar, he’ll crash his car and land in rehab, the very setting from which Shia LaBeouf began writing this therapeutic screenplay about how his alcoholic dad, a Vietnam vet, ex-rodeo clown and felon (LaBeouf), shaped his future as a paid chaperone to the young Disney Channel star (Noah Jupe at 12) he called “Honey Boy.”
In an Indiewire article by Chris O'Falt, we learn that it was editor Monica Salazar who found the film’s past-informs-the-present flashback structure by seizing upon that effects shot as the film’s grabby opener (LaBeouf’s screenplay, workshopped with director Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”), had been linear). It’s the right approach as the real drama lies in ‘Otis’s’ childhood.
When we first find him in 1995, young Otis is also suspended on a wire where he will be hit in the face with a pie. Back home in their shabby motel suite, dad James begins to taunt his son about the size of his penis. The boy’s attempt to speak with his mother (voice of Natasha Lyonne) over the phone is hijacked by dad’s rage. His desire to attend an event with his Big Brother Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.) is granted only if Tom will meet dad at a barbecue where he attacks the man he’d promised to behave with. A great job in Vancouver must be turned down because, as a felon, dad cannot leave the country. There is constant tension because of the power imbalance of a parent who is also an employee. Dad has a love/hate relationship with the prostitutes who run their business across the courtyard, but one of them, Shy Girl (FKA Twigs in her acting debut), becomes an affectionate mother figure for his son, a haven of comfort.
Noah Jupe, who broke out in George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” and is also currently starring in “Ford v Ferrari,” is phenomenal as the kid actor older than his years who wants more from his father than his father has to give. In his turnaround year, LaBeouf, sporting a balding pate mullet, walks a tightrope as his fictionalized father, the actor never turning us against the man despite his often hateful behavior. We see the roots of it all too clearly in a man dealing with that combustible combination of wounded ego and self doubt. It is Hedges who registers the least, his present day encounters with therapists ( “Sex, Lies & Videotape’s” Laura San Giacomo plays one of them) more a springboard to the past than current riveting drama.
Locations are limited to film sets, rehab and that dingy motel, cinematographer Natasha Braier (“The Neon Demon”) utilizing cramped space well and a drab palette which is a little too dark. The screenplay may never answer why a twelve year-old with such steady work in the entertainment industry is reduced to sharing a seedy motel room with his dad, but it does wrap wonderfully with an illustration of love and forgiveness.
Robin gives "Honey Boy" a B-.
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