'Honey Boy' Review: Shia LaBeouf Is Astounding In This Deeply Personal, Autobiographical Drama [Sundance]

In recent years, Shia LaBeouf has become well-known for wild publicity stunts, tabloid-worthy behavior, perplexing performance art, and more. But with his autobiographical film Honey Boy that he scripted himself, the actor not only illustrates the struggles he dealt with as a child star thanks to his abusive, alcohol and drug addicted father, but also proves that he's still an incredible actor.

Honey Boy jumps back and forth in time. In 2005, we have Lucas Hedges (Ben Is Back, Manchester by the Sea) playing Otis, a Shia LaBeouf proxy at the height of fame in his film career when trouble really started to brew in his life. Back in 1995, there's young Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) as the child star version of Otis, dramatizing the time in LaBeouf's life when he was working on The Disney Channel show Even Stevens. The film reveals all the tragedy and grief that came from those child star years and how they've fanned the flames of the substance abuse-fueled behavior that has landed him in rehab again.

With LaBeouf scripting the film itself, this is one of the most deeply personal and cathartic films that I've ever seen on the big screen. LaBeouf is not shy when it comes to making it clear that this movie is about his own life. From the opening sequence where Lucas Hedges gets blasted back on a wire harness in an explosion while rapidly shouting, "No, no, no, no, no!" as LaBeouf has done in the Transformers franchise to the car crash that lands Otis back in jail and rehab and gives him the hand injury that ended up highly publicized in the media, this is LaBeouf's cinematic therapy. And once you see what he had to endure, you'll understand why it's so important to him.

In the 1995 portion, Noah Jupe delivers a breakthrough performance as a 12-year old Otis, a kid forced to grow up way too fast thanks to the irresponsibility and abusiveness of his PTSD-rattled and substance addicted father, James. Otis gets rewarded with cigarettes occasionally, which he needs every so often to deal with his father's abrasive behavior and attitude. While he maintains a tough exterior, Jupe's performance always carries a subtle trace of the child inside who craves affection and care, hoping that his father will one day actually turn over a new leaf and be the kind of role model and parent he needs during his formative years.

Otis' father just so happens to be played by Shia LaBeouf himself in a truly astounding, emotional gut-punch of a performance. Together, the two have a volatile bond as James pushes Otis to be better on the series by cutting him down in totally inappropriate ways, giving him rodeo inspired comedy exercises, coaching his acting, blowing up at him for the most mundane actions, and in a sudden burst of anger, even slapping Otis across the face. It's a performance that is simultaneously mesmerizing but, at various times, extremely difficult to watch.

Meanwhile, in 2005, Hedges continues to prove that he's one of the finest actors of his generation. He has a knack for playing tragic young figures haunted by their past, whether it's of their own doing or forces outside of their control. In Honey Boy, the actor does a fantastic job of portraying this dramatized version of Shia LaBeouf, nailing his mannerisms and speaking style as he struggles with giving into any kind of therapeutic help.

Though it's the performances that drive this movie to greatness, it would be nothing without director Alma Har'el behind the camera. The director brings her own demons to the project since she also grew up with an alcoholic father, adding to the authentic portrayal of this abusive relationship between a father and their child. But Har'el also brings a keen visual eye to the table, and even though this is her first film, with the assistance of cinematographer Natasha Braier, she pulls off some beautiful, intimate camera work that only elevates the personal nature of this film.

It would be easy to criticize Honey Boy for following in the same footsteps as other tragic childhood stories like The Florida Project or Mommie Dearest, or other festival darlings like I, Tonya and Precious. You could even roll your eyes at the indie cliche role given to trip-hop star FKA Twigs, who literally (well, not literally) plays a prostitute with a heart of gold living in one of the motel rooms across the parking lot from the room James and Otis live in. She occasionally gives Otis the affection he so desperately craves, operating almost like his makeshift sister since she also has her own troubled parental relationship that plagues her every day.

While there are shortcomings one could latch onto to criticize this film, it's the autobiographical touch of Shia LaBeouf, both in the script and in front of the camera, that makes this movie work so well and hit that much harder. You can feel LaBeouf working through his demons in this movie, even if there are moments that could be perceived as self-indulgent or pretentious, especially when a dream sequence features the 2005 Otis telling his father that he's going to make a movie about him. But even so, this film is full of such genuine tragedy that it can't be so simply overlooked, and I hope it's the start of a new chapter for Shia LaBeouf as an artist.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10