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For what seemed like an interminable amount of time earlier this decade, Shia LaBeouf was an unbearable and unbearably over-reported distraction. His initial promise as a precocious child star extended into his teens as he matured into a fine young actor yet swirling rumours of difficult behaviour soon gave birth to a new phase of rather tiresome and very public provocation.
He was violent, rude, incoherent and indulgently pretentious, turning his back on acting and instead reinventing himself as an amateurish performance artist, wearing a paper bag over his head at the Berlin film festival before silently crying in front of visitors for six days at a Los Angeles gallery. But then he transformed again and reminded us of why we all learned to spell his name in the first place. He relaunched himself as a franchise-unfriendly arthouse mainstay working with Lars von Trier and, most memorably, Andrea Arnold, treating us to arguably his greatest performance to date in American Honey.
Initially revealed at Sundance and now cropping up at Toronto, his semi-autobiographical confessional Honey Boy implies that he is at least mildly self-aware and at least gently apologetic for his aforementioned black and blue period. It’s a script that started out as an exercise during a court-imposed rehab stint, an attempt to exorcise the demons that had driven him there in the first place. It tells the story of Shia-alike Otis (Lucas Hedges), who is forced to look back on a difficult childhood as a way of building out of the mess it has created. As a kid (played by Noah Jupe) he spent his time between TV and film sets and a dingy hotel room with his foul-tempered deadbeat dad (played by LaBeouf himself). While his star might have been on the rise, his difficult relationship with his father dominated and continues to dominate years later, a tricky puzzle that remains unsolved.
Given the excesses we now associate with LaBeouf, it’s a pleasant relief to see just how restrained Honey Boy is. The director Alma Har’el does play with time and reality throughout but there remains a genuine heart to LaBeouf’s script, the clear-eyed work of a man at pains trying to figure out how delving into his past might help fix his present. While it’s clear that his father was a toxic force, LaBeouf avoids one-note villainy and, while abhorrent at times, he was also capable of love, or at least a certain kind of hyper-masculine version of love. It’s one of the most messily believable portraits of a bad dad we have seen for a while and although LaBeouf playing him can feel like a gimmicky distraction, he’s good enough to remind us that he has forever been a character actor lumped with the career of a leading man.
As his older self, Hedges is a nifty piece of casting, possessing the same safe boyishness that LaBeouf was trying to rebel against while the film’s real star is British actor Jupe, extraordinarily self-possessed as younger Otis/Shia. He’s put through the wringer, carrying much of the film’s emotional weight, but manages quite remarkably, smoothly convincing as a child struggling to figure out how to survive such a confusing parental dynamic. Even at a brief 95 minutes, the film can’t quite sustain itself past an immersive first half and within the confines of the hotel room, events can start to feel repetitive and our interest starts to waver. The film also subscribes a little too closely to the quirky indie movie playbook with a recurring, and not hugely impactful, chicken motif and a thinly etched manic pixie dream neighbour played by FKA Twigs.
For LaBeouf, the script was quite literally a form of therapy for deep-rooted issues he still struggles with and as such, it’s an inventive and admirably introspective exercise. As a film though, it’s only half as successful, not quite as involving or as stirring for us as it surely is for him. By the end, he might be crying but everyone else will be dry-eyed.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Honey Boy review – Shia LaBeouf turns therapy into big-screen drama | Toronto film festival 2019