Telling a personal story is risky. I know because I have started doing just that with this new podcast memoir. The more personal it is, the more truth you reveal, the more agonizing it can be. That is especially true now, as our stories proliferate, our stories are everywhere, all the time. Every Instagram post, every Twitter outburst, every Facebook status update tells a little bit more of who we are, where we came from, how we make sense of the world.
We are all part of a continuous loop of performance art. Some of it is compelling, most of it mundane. No matter. We tell our stories because we have to tell them. We’re human. That’s what we do.
Shia LaBeouf decided it was time to tell his story. But to do it he chose to tell it though the eyes of his longtime collaborator Alma Har’el. The thing about the movie is that it’s really less about him and more about her interpretation of his life, their shared memories, and that elusive unnamable thing we call a soul. Honey Boy is a beautiful work of art as much as it is a portrait of an artist at the hands of a wreck of a father.
Har’el does not pay much attention to convention in the movie — as it drifts back and forth between Shia as a young man (Lucas Hedges) and Shia as a boy (the wonderful Noah Jupe) and then Shia’s father played by Shia LaBeouf himself. In the ways that she follows these three male figures she tells us so much about them in terms that I don’t think a male director could.
The person missing from the story of Honey Boy is LaBeouf’s mother, though clearly she is a strong force in his life. Honey Boy, written by LaBeouf, is about his relationship with his volcanic, unpredictable father. So I expected to see a movie that laid the blame for LaBeouf’s struggles to stay sane growing up in Hollywood and then trying to manage fame with a chaotic, violent father figure shadowing his every move.
But Honey Boy is not so black and white as that. In a sense, it is a movie about forgiveness, just as much as it is an exploration of childhood memories, many of which are still too difficult to bear. Who is he forgiving? Well, his father, for starters. Choosing to not give up on him but rather to see where he’s coming from. Perhaps standing in his father’s shoes, seeing things from his perspective, enabled him to better find a way to forgive his father.
What makes LaBeouf’s performance so good — one of the best of the year, in fact — is that he has built so much trust with this director and clearly feels comfortable enough in front of her camera to open up to the kind of moments that must have been hard to play. They’re hard to watch so they had to be frightening to revisit.
There is a sense that the voices and presence of women in his life saved him from really diving off the edge, from his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) to a woman he meets at their motel (FKA Twig) and of course, to the woman behind the camera who is really the strongest and most sympathetic voice here. She is asking him to tell her the story, to relay it to her. That makes this movie not only breathtaking but unlike anything else you’ll see in terms of a relationship between a director and an actor.
LaBeouf has always been a combustible force on screen, even going back to the stuff he did as a kid. The camera loves him. He has so much star power and yet has never been able to really find his footing in a town that really does chew you up and spit you out. That he goes in and out of being a punchline to people, that his pain has been celebrated, that no one seems willing to give him a chance to find his way back to a career is yet more proof that we can all too easily slip into indifference.
Watching Honey Boy is hard because we get the sense that there is nothing to hold onto. But it is powerful all the same because of that. That LaBeouf finds it in his heart to understand his father and forgive him is maybe the best proof of all that he has indeed overcome whatever kind of mental prison his father tried to put him in.
Honey Boy is not an excuse, nor an explanation. It is an emotional journey taken by a boy who knows how bad it all was, and knows that he barely survived, and knows his father is weak and afraid — and somehow in all of that LaBeouf finds a way to see through it, to move through it, to believe in some kind of hope.
I don’t know if he can cut into the Best Supporting Actor race. It is so crowded with so many names in so many films that are aimed for the Best Picture race. But I would be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to this performance in this film. It’s an odd movie but, I would wager, an unforgettable one.