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Honey Boy - Film Review

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by Nicholas Gordon (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in Sydney.
Published February 16th 2020
Shia LaBeouf tells the story of his tumultuous childhood
It would be hard to lead a normal life and be a child actor. And it certainly wasn't a normal life for Shia LaBeouf, who as a teenager was the star of a Disney sitcom, later becoming an even bigger name thanks to the Transformers franchise. How not normal his upbringing was is the basis for Honey Boy, which was written by LaBeouf during a stint in rehab.

Told over two time periods, the film begins with LaBeouf (though his character is renamed Otis, and played by Lucas Hedges) making an action movie in the desert. The shoot is physical and demanding. Lots of being flung into the air, chases through tunnels and surviving explosions. Otis deals with the tough shoot by ingesting pills and booze in large quantities. Eventually, Otis lucks out, smashes up his car, is arrested, and lands in rehab.

Otis remains viciously angry in rehab. He rebuffs attempts by the staff to open up. He refuses to participate in activities. His problems and anger mount. The cause of his anger slowly begins to reveal itself.

We flashback to 1995. Otis is 11-years-old (young Otis is played by Noah Jupe) and lives in a rundown motel with his father, James (Shia LaBeouf plays his own father). It's apparent early that the relationship isn't cosy. James is a veteran, a former rodeo clown, and an alcoholic. He's Otis' sole carer and chaperone, and is otherwise unemployed, his only source of income Otis' pay from the studio, which he pockets himself. (Otis' mother is heard of only on the phone, the details of that relationship remain murky.)

As Otis' star continues to rise, his father turns increasingly abusive. He pushes Otis to succeed at his acting, but even with that sole aim, still remains angry at the world, and isn't great at being Otis' manager and carer either. James clashes with everyone, regardless of what's best for Otis. Otis, who knows nothing else, slowly awakens to challenging his father's behaviour.

Directed by Alma Har'el, Honey Boy tells a harrowing story well. The extended flashback scenes mixed with the rehab scenes work in conveying the effect of Otis' childhood on his later career and life. It's obvious to say that this is personal for LaBeouf, but his script never suffers from self-indulgence. Instead, what is presented is taut and powerful, the relationship between father and son is stifling and all-encompassing for the young Otis.

The three main performances are all dependable. LaBeouf does fantastically well with the damaged and overbearing personality of his father. Likewise, Lucas Hodges shines as the troubled older Otis in rehab. Noah Jupe as young Otis shines, at once world-weary and recognised by fans in public, he remains still a young boy very confused by the life he's leading.

It's a sad and emotional story and yet it's presented assuredly. The focus on the relationship between Otis and his father probably omits other aspects of LaBeouf's circumstance. But the story we are shown remains confronting and compelling.

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*Nicholas Gordon was invited as a guest
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Why? For the perils of childhood stardom.
When: In cinemas February 27
Where: Select cinemas nationally
Cost: Varies
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