The term 'child star' is now shorthand for 'person who had great success early in life who now is floundering as an adult'. It's a tale as old as Hollywood itself. Jackie Coogan. Carl Switzer. Bobby Driscoll. Jonathan Brandis. Brad Renfro. Amanda Bynes. Dana Plato. Despite that quite a few child stars have had successful careers post-childhood in front and behind the camera, 'child star' is now virtually a cliche on a disheveled life.
Where Shia LaBeouf will ultimately end up (destroyed or redeemed) remains to be seen. Having found success as a child star on the television sitcom Even Stevens, even winning an Emmy for it, LaBeouf has had many public struggles for a man now 33. As part of his effort to exorcise his public demons, we have the autobiographical Honey Boy. The film is appropriately artsy but clunky, with the shadow of LaBeaouf's life so dominant it is hard to see anything else.
Jumping between 1995 and 2005, Honey Boy tells the story of Otis Lort. In 1995 young Otis (Noah Jupe) is a somewhat successful child actor who despite what appears to be a good career lives in a sleazy motel with his father James (LaBeouf). James, a former rodeo clown, is in turns protective and abusive towards Otis, proud and resentful of the son he mishandles so much that Otis has a Big Brother, Tom (Clifton Collins, Jr.).
James is a horrible human being: letting his son smoke, secretly growing his own marijuana field near the interstate, slapping Otis around, tossing Tom into the hotel swimming pool after making racist comments to him, and a registered sex offender who may or may not have raped his now ex-wife. Still, Otis has little choice but to endure James' control over his professional and private life, with only Shy Girl (pop singer FKA Twigs) to comfort him in surprisingly un-shy ways.
In 2005, Otis (Lucas Hedges) is now a drug wastrel of a human being, whose latest run-in with the law after a brutal car crash forces him into rehab. Here, under the firm guidance of counselor Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo) Otis has to face his PTSD to sort out his life.
My issues with Honey Boy are many, but perhaps chief among them is the near-impossibility of separating the film itself from LaBeouf's own life story. Perhaps the best people to truly judge Honey Boy are those who have never heard of Shia LaBeouf, let alone his series of eccentric behavior and myriad of arrests. Trying to see as they would, I think they might be equally moved and horrified by the psychological torture Otis endured, but I also think they would find sitting through it very unpleasant.
One thing they probably wouldn't care about is the 2005 section, Honey Boy's weakest part. It is the weakest part because it is a cliche: the troubled young man having to fight his way back from his undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder. Worse, we have Lucas Hedges playing this role, and at this point I hope we can put a moratorium on "Lucas Hedges as a troubled young man" films.
Manchester By the Sea. Lady Bird. Ben is Back. Honey Boy. How many times is Hedges going to keep playing 'troubled young men'? It's become also parody to see Hedges in these roles. He needs to do a romantic comedy or action film, as he is too good an actor to play the same role the same way in different films.
Yet, going back to my original point, Honey Boy reminded me of all things Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (also known as Starting Again). That television movie had Joan and Melissa Rivers play, not versions of themselves, but their actual selves in the story of how they healed after the suicide of Joan's husband Edgar Rosenberg. Whether one thought it was cathartic or tawdry to have Joan and Melissa Rivers reenact their own lives for the cameras is up to the viewer, but at least Tears and Laughter allowed them to play themselves without bothering to pretend they were playing fictional characters merely based on themselves.
James here makes Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest look like Donna Stone. At least in that film Faye Dunaway showed some vulnerability in her Crawford, a few moments where she was actually human. Honey Boy does not bother to.
I'm obviously in the minority in that Honey Boy is being lavishly praised, but I found only one aspect to praise: Noah Jupe. His ability to act as both Otis and in the few scenes where he's on-set reveal a young actor with exceptional range and talent. He is even able to sell such on-the-mark lines as "She holds my hand. You slap me in the face" when rebuking James.
As for LaBeouf, as with The Peanut Butter Falcon his James seems too calculated, too mannered, too actory to believe. I could see him ACTING with a Capital A throughout Honey Boy, apparently still holding on to his Peanut Butter Falcon accent and adding a paunch to metaphorically if not literally fill out a character. With regards to Hedges, for heavens sake stop with these roles. Just stop.
Truth be told, Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har'el in her feature film debut, felt altogether calculated. It has appropriately artsy sequences and visuals, but the film as a whole left me cold and bored. The sad song playing while James falls off the wagon and goes to a strip club felt too artificial and predictable.
As I finished Honey Boy, one of my final thoughts was 'Who really enjoys watching this torture?' I hope Shia LaBeouf has worked out his private demons and wish him all the best. I just don't think Tears and Laughter: The Shia LaBeouf Story is worth either the time or praise it keeps getting.