Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Honey Boy’ has issues

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Shia LaBeouf Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf plays his own dad in ‘Honey Boy.’ Image courtesy Amazon Studios.

Actor plays his own dad in uneven biopic

Plagiarists deserve no quarter, particularly plagiarists who plagiarize their apology for plagiarism. But if we can trust Shia LaBeouf—and experience shows we cannot—his childhood was unusually rough. Honey Boy is a script the actor wrote in recovery. The buff, sullen LaBeouf-surrogate Otis (Lucas Hedges) languishes poolside, after a spree of violence and drunkenness that flashes before our eyes. The judge gave him a choice of four years in jail or a stint in a Malibu rehab. Under the unflinching eye of Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), Otis has to deal with the PTSD he acquired growing up as a child actor.  

Once, he was a 12-year-old in an L.A. motel beside the railroad tracks. He shared a room with his hectoring father James (played by LaBeouf himself) who young Otis paid to be something between a PA and a manager. James was a motorcycle-riding combat vet and ex-con who did time for a sex offense he was too drunk to recall. Now he’s posing as a laid-back hippie in friendly-looking oversized eyeglasses. Four years in AA has done nothing for James’ King Kong–sized temper. 

He’s particularly pissed off at his son’s success. Otis gets movie-of-the week roles; James never made it bigger than being an Oklahoma rodeo clown with a live-chicken novelty act. He never misses a chance to humiliate his son, to mock his tiny “golf-pencil” penis or to force him into juggling lessons, with pushup-penalties if he drops a ball. 

At 33, LaBeouf’s come a long way. His mature performance in Fury was a far cry from the annoying, plucky-kid acting he did in what seemed like three dozen Transformer movies. This year, he brought credible heft and humor to Peanut Butter Falcon, maybe his best performance yet—he was authentically rural, light and touching.

But as a writer, he wallows. There’s the question of authenticity: is this memoir or fiction? Was his career as an actor just a blurry arc from being hit by a pie on a kid’s show to doing a ratchet-pull stunt during the filming of some alien-attack blockbuster? Didn’t he get something out of his career?

Honey Boy is a therapy movie

During the course of this therapy-movie, James describes his own childhood hell in a monologue at an AA meeting—the kind of scene that feels like a lazy writer’s crutch. In his bad-dad role, LaBeouf lacks the kind of magnetic evil or redeeming black humor that makes you want to watch. 

James is the kind of bad joker who insists you laugh at his weird anti-gag about the white flecks in chicken poop. Chickens are symbolic—Otis, like a hen, must cross the road if he plans to get to the other side; ultimately he follows a symbolic yardbird into his father’s dwelling, to confront him at last.  

It’s the performance-artist in LaBeouf that makes him take this all too far. His characterization of James is reminiscent of the punishing old man in Harmony Korine’s julien donkey-boy, which made an actor as interesting as Werner Herzog boring. 

‘Honey Boy’ is playing in limited release.

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