Content warning: mentions of physical and emotional abuse and alcohol use disorder.
Described by director Alma Har’el as a film made by and for children of people with alcohol use disorder, 2019’s Honey Boy was is set up to be an emotional ordeal from its get-go. Having had its international premiere last week at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Honey Boy is a story told through two interconnecting timelines.
The film details the life of a child actor named Otis, played by Noah Jupe, and his experience growing up in the presence of his physically and emotionally abusive father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf. With a screenplay written by and based on Shia LaBaouf’s own upbringing, Honey Boy is an intimate tale of Otis’s trauma and exorcising of personal demons that ends up coalescing into a work of art that will surely resonate with its audience.
The film follows Otis through two stages of his life: 1995, when Otis is just a twelve-year-old actor on an unnamed sitcom — but one that is definitely based on Disney Channel’s Even Stevens. The second period takes place in 2005, where a 22-year-old Otis, now played by Lucas Hedges from the critically acclaimed A24 films LadyBird and Mid90s, now spends his days in rehabilitation as a Hollywood star with an alcohol use disorder.
Har’el switches between the two timelines through a series of clever transitionary sequences where Otis ends up interacting with some object or physical space that parallels an experience his other self has, or will, experience.
In one such instance, an older Otis is in rehabilitation and cleaning a chicken coop when he is reminded of his father who, in his own youth, was a less-than-successful rodeo clown who often used chickens in his showcases. These aimless chickens return throughout the film as a hilarious and surreal motif that often leads Otis into some of his most heart-wrenching revelations. Never has a chicken aimlessly prancing around been so emotionally impactful.
At times self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking, Honey Boy is also a film about film itself. Har’el is very invested in exploring the cathartic process of filmmaking itself through the kitschy, mainstream comedies and action flicks that Otis — and Labeouf — once starred in. At certain points in the film, it becomes difficult to distinguish between Otis’ memories, his reality, and his acting on a film set.
Otis’ timelines interweave not only with one another, but with the sitcoms and action movies sets he’s working on. Whether it be through slapstick, prop humor or high-octane stunt sequences, the shoots often have Otis undergoing some form of a physical or emotional challenge as the scripts begin to parallel his real life. This blending of timelines and realities helps elevate the movie from straight-forward, narrative biopic into an experimental, reality-bending film.
In the post-screening Q&A session with the cast and director, LaBeouf was quick to point out that he wrote this movie for himself and, more importantly, for his own father. Labeouf’s portrayal of his father is revelatory in its ability to make one feel so angry at his failures as a father yet also be the focus of so much of our sympathies.
To see a person so openly face their own demons on screen was one of the festival’s most emotionally-impactful moments. Honey Boy’s greatest strength is in its ability to combine dream-like vignettes with wonderful dialogue to create moments of beauty in the most unexpected of places. Whether that place is a chicken coop, a Hollywood film set or a highway interstate, Har’el’s cast of misfits manages to bring a smile — and a tear — to everyone’s face.
Honey Boy hits theatres on November 8, 2019.