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Wednesday, September 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In ‘Honey Boy,’ Shia LaBeouf tells his own story

Dan Webster

And so we push on, weathering this scourge of a plague as it changes the world we know. Yet as we wait to see how this all turns out, we need, at least on occasion, to turn away from the headlines and feelings of doom to seek out art — in my case cinema — to pass the time. Which is why I am still watching, and reviewing movies.

This is my latest review, which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

The actor Shia LaBeouf has been performing in one way or another since he was 10 years old. He was just that age, in fact, when he began performing in comedy clubs and tricked a talent agent into taking him on as a client by pretending to be his own adult manager.

LaBeouf was already a veteran of both television and movies when I first became aware of him, when he starred in the 2003 movie “Holes,” an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s acclaimed young-adult novel. He then went on to be a featured part of several blockbuster movies, including Michael Bay’s “Transformers” series and the 2008 film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

In recent years, LaBeouf has taken a more diverse career route. Besides appearing in such popular films as 2014’s “Fury” and 2017’s “Borg vs. McEnroe” (in which he played, fittingly, the belligerent John McEnroe), he has both become associated with more artistic films, such as Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films (both released in 2013) and become the focus of tabloid news.

Arrests for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, disruptive behavior on the set of “Fury” and a stint in rehab, all cast LaBeouf – now, at age 37 – as a troublesome, if talented, character. And to some of us, he appeared to be just another Hollywood creation – a former child star who couldn’t navigate the road to maturity.

Then came his film “Honey Boy” and, at least for me, that view changed. If anything, the fact that he’s still alive at all – much less still making movies – seems nothing short of a miracle.

“Honey Boy” – a 2019 film that I saw last week courtesy of the streaming site Amazon Prime – is based on LaBeouf’s own life. He wrote the script, which he handed off to director Alma Har’el, and then he appeared in the film opposite Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges.

LaBeouf plays James Lort, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a recovering alcoholic and a difficult, demanding father to his young son Otis – played at age 12 by Jupe, at age 22 by Hedges. Already a TV star, the younger Otis lives with his father in a motel, travels to and from the set on the back of his father’s motorcycle and is the constant focus of his father’s attention, which is at times helpful and instructive but more often disdainful and dismissive.

The film then cuts to the older Otis, by then a movie star whose own reckless attitude toward drink and drugs lands him in rehab – in lieu of jail – where he, at least at first, resists any attempts to help him find some sort of mental and emotional equilibrium.

Throughout its 94-minute running time, “Honey Boy” is a virtual exercise in skillful screen acting, not just by Jupe (so good in last year’s “Ford v Ferrari”) and Hedges (who played opposite Oscar-winning actor Casey Affleck in 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea”), but by LaBeouf himself – who clearly is working out his inner demons.

As a version of his own father, LaBeouf comes across as a truly complex man, one so torn by his own inner conflicts that he can’t help but damage the very boy he professes to love. A kind of damage that two scenes in particular display visually – “Honey Boy’s” opening when the older Otis plays a movie scene in which his character gets blown backward, and the scene in which the younger Otis gets smacked in the face with a cream pie.

“Honey Boy” is not an easy film to watch, especially for those among us whose own childhoods involved emotional abuse. Then again, few films have better explored the specifics of such abuse – and how its effects can linger throughout life. 

But those reasons, plus the quality of the acting, make “Honey Boy” a worthy view. And, all together, it gives us a better understanding of – and perhaps more compassion for – the person who inspired those lurid tabloid headlines.

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