Throughout the last decade, Shia LeBeouf has been no stranger to controversy and media attention, starting with his unexpected departure from the “Transformers” franchise. Following his withdrawal from Hollywood, LeBeouf would create art installations, famously watching his entire filmography with a livestream capturing his reactions, while also appearing in a steady stream of indie movies. The line between LeBeouf the movie star and LeBeouf the person has been continuously blurred, and “Honey Boy” may be the most exaggerated case yet.
“Honey Boy,” directed by Alma Har’el, details the life of child star Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe), who is pushed into the limelight at a time where he is not equipped to handle the stress of success. The movie splits time between Otis in two different parts of his life. Hedges plays Otis in his early 20s, fighting against a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder that he is required to trace, while Jupe handles Otis in the early days of his career, working in Hollywood by day while having to return his life of squalor at night. LeBeouf doubles as both writer and actor, using his own life story as the screenplay’s narrative foundation and portraying Otis’ dad, failed rodeo clown James Lort. LeBeouf manages to write a rather good screenplay, though, in the future, it will be more compelling to see him tackle topics with more of a personal disconnect.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the movie appears in its opening sequence, where the audience is given a glimpse of Otis’ downward spiral of drug abuse and narcissism. Through the use of rapid editing and a plexiglass color palette, the film invokes the vulnerability and fear Otis was swaddled in at a young age. It’s puzzling that this frenetic style is never used again as “Honey Boy” slows to a crawl for the remaining hour and a half.
Most of the movie takes place in Otis and James’ trailer home — a dilapidated entanglement of lost dreams — but for staging purposes, it’s a 10-by-10 foot room with beds and a bathroom. There is not much space for the characters to explore, so most scenes are reduced to the two yelling at each other with a gimmicklike juggling or rehearsing to try and spice up the redundancy. This claustrophobic space becomes incredibly stale by the end, and its overuse begs the question of whether or not the script would have worked better in theater or film.
The dynamic between Jupe and LeBeouf is the strongest piece of the movie, as their characters try to reconcile their love for each other, while they keep tearing the other down. Jupe is able to match LeBeouf’s larger-than-life presence, as they compete in the sunburned hills of distant Hollywood; in the coming years, Jupe is going to be an actor to impress audiences all around the world. Both performances are packed with raw emotion, and the entire movie feels like a therapeutic expedition for LeBeouf.
The main problem of “Honey Boy” is what to do with FKA Twigs’ character, Shy Girl, who lives across from the Lorts. As her name suggests, she sulks in the shadows until a few chance encounters with the young Otis. From there, the two develop a strange pseudo-sexual, pseudo-maternal dynamic, which only serves to creep the audience out. Her character is never explored or even given that many lines, so the circumstances behind their relationship are obscured. Twigs’ biggest contribution comes when she barks a line at LeBeouf at one point, which inflicts a character change, but this is the extent of her use to the plot.
Hedges gives a decent performance, but it feels like an acting style the actor has been cornered into for several years: the one where he typically plays a morose and downtrodden person who is prone to explosions of anger such as in “Manchester by the Sea” or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The best way to describe the movie is to reference its ending, which has James and Otis reconcile, as Otis tells his father, “One day, I’m going to make a movie about you.” Yes, it’s endearing but, all in all, not imaginative or daring enough to explore the film medium. Everything seems too typical and comfortable in the end. While the story of movie star LeBeouf fits perfectly within the confines of a movie itself, the story plays out too conventionally to leave a lasting impact.