A decade ago, Shia LaBeouf’s star was on the rise, but at some point he could no longer outrun whatever it was that was chasing him. Before long, his trajectory wasn’t that of a brilliant young talent whose charisma leapt off the screen, but rather that of a guy who seemed to be repeatedly knocked off course by yet another story about his personal life that overshadowed whatever projects he was working on.
Something happened to LaBeouf as he grew up on screen before our eyes. Like many quicksilver artists before him, he appeared to come undone as he became more famous. In the process of sorting himself out, he found ways to stage his re-invention on the fringes, doing intimate performance art. Nothing was too absurd or ridiculous for him to attempt. He grabbed onto the absurdity with both hands. Whatever he was searching for, he now seems to have found it. Because this year the disciplined actor is back in two films, The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy.
Rather than run from his troubled past, LaBeouf has, with Honey Boy, decided to confront it directly. In this primal scream of a film that depicts a son’s struggle to break free from a father whose influence entangles his heart and mind, he has also created for himself an actor’s showcase. It’s a stunning resurrection of the career that was almost scuttled and a fierce reminder of what a great actor — what a great character actor — he can be in serious roles.
In Honey Boy LaBeouf delivers, without question, his best performance to date.
Whatever demons Shia LaBeouf has wrestled with in his life, he’s brought all the lessons of those battles to the surface here, to confront them and finally be free of them. He wrote the screenplay for Honey Boy at the urging of his therapist, and then was encouraged by his friend and director Alma Har’el to collaborate, to capture that journey on film.
La Beouf made a decision that couldn’t have been easy: to embody the father that has haunted him these many years. Who else but he could play the part so convincingly? Throughout the film, it’s hard to imagine the fearlessness it took to slip into that role, to reenact scenes of such shame and horror. It couldn’t be a fully loving rendering if it was to be an honest look at a complicated relationship. But then in moments of tremendous joy, it’s clear how much he loved his father, and those conflicted feelings illuminate every frame of the film.
All the same, watching LaBeouf convey his father’s cruelty is frightening. Their common DNA braids the two together. He’s such a good actor and it’s such a transformative work that at some point, we don’t see the actor anymore. Instead, we see a combustible monster who loomed large as his talented son became a well-known child star, then grew up to become one of the most promising actors of his generation.
It’s easy to forget what a good actor LaBeouf has always been. His public image off-screen was so dramatic that his talent onscreen often took a backseat. Maybe because those roles were never as deep as the actor himself. Playing his father in Honey Boy, he never loses focus. As we watch them go through their rituals, preparing the young Shia for auditions, we see his father’s warped way of dragging his son toward a version of manhood.
It’s a fertile film trope to chart the terrain of a wayward parent whose child has no choice but to hang on along the chaotic path. In Paper Moon, Ryan O’Neil and his daughter Tatum played father and daughter grifters that were nothing like their Hollywood reality, but the authenticity of their real-life relationship is what hooked us into the story. Similarly, in Honey Boy, LaBeouf has drawn a portrait of the father who often terrorized his childhood, but also shaped him into the man he has become. It is a fully realized, expansive, unforgettable work.
Honey Boy is more than just a personal exercise to free the actor from his father’s checkered legacy — it is also a beautifully told story with moments as joyful as they are terrifying. Har’el always keeps the action slightly off-kilter and unpredictable, so we feel the constant insecurity of the juggling act that the father plays with his son to keep him on his toes. It’s like boot camp: if he drops the ball, he has to do push-ups. Likewise, there’s the vague sexual awakening of the young Shia when he meets a woman at the motel where they live. Was their relationship sexual? Did it cross those boundaries? We never get the answer, but we see the inherent vulnerability that comes when you’re cared for by a man who was only around part of the time.
We get a glimpse into the rough life LaBeouf endured, rattling behind his father like a tin can tied to the back bumper of a car. But as bad as things got, it never reached the point where the son had to part ways with his father. That’s the only way to escape with some abusive parents, but Honey Boy doesn’t go that route. Remarkably, and somehow almost triumphantly, the film finds compassion for LaBeouf’s father and perhaps that’s the film’s biggest and most fulfilling surprise.
In the end, LaBeouf can’t hate his father. For better or worse, he can’t reject the influence of such an enormous force in his life. He has the choice to walk away, to abandon the jagged memories and remake himself as someone new; but by the end he has found that he must embrace at least part of that life, and accept his imperfect, broken father as he was, as he is.
This is filmmaking at its most raw, scathing, and honest. LaBeouf has written one of the most memorable screenplays of 2019, and has given by far one of the year’s standout performances.