You may recall that a few years ago the oddball actor Shia LaBeouf was in hot water over allegations of plagiarism, after critics noticed similarities between his short film Howard Cantour.com and a comic by Daniel Clowes. Puckishly, LaBeouf then compounded the problem by delivering an apology that was itself plagiarized.
But his newest film, Honey Boy – which he wrote and stars in but did not direct – would seem to avoid any scent of copying, being based on his own childhood experiences. He wrote the screenplay while in rehab, something the lead character Otis does in the film as well; art imitating art imitating LaBeouf’s life.
When we first meet Otis (Lucas Hedges, delivering a remarkably LaBeoufian cadence) he’s on the set of something that looks very much like the real actor’s breakout movie, Transformers. A drunken car crash and rehab follows, with Otis encouraged to look back at his life and make sense of it.
This is the film’s journey as well; it spends most of its time in the mid-’90s with 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) working as a child actor while being raised by his ne’er-do-well dad James, played by LaBeouf. The alcoholic ex-con and former rodeo clown has little in the way of child-raising skills – Otis is part of the Big Brother program in spite of also having a father, and a meeting between said Brother (Clifton Collins Jr.) and his dad does not go well.
James has other talents, including one for getting into trouble. “I’m growing, son,” he tells Otis at one point, and both the boy and the audience expect some kind of emotional breakthrough until the old man continues: “I’m growing marijuana on the side of the highway.” This is how he plans to support the kid, although eventually Otis is earning enough to hire his dad as his chauffeur, turning the dysfunctional family relationship into a dysfunctional employer/employee one as well.
At its worst – and given LaBeouf’s recent penchant for weird performance art, the worst is never far away – Honey Boy could come across as nothing more than public therapy, with audiences paying to watch. But there is a real sense of wounded humanity in both the child and young-adult Otis, particularly when the former reaches out to a young woman (British singer-songwriter FKA Twigs) in a bid for comfort and companionship that may also cross the line into prostitution.
The film is the feature debut of director Alma Har’el, who has previously made documentaries and music videos. It’s well shot, and any shakiness in the structure, it could be argued, merely mirrors that of the life of its protagonist. As to LaBeouf’s performance in a role inspired by his own father, it’s a fearless portrayal of insecurity masquerading as swagger. Did the actor steal the essence of his father’s personality? Let’s be charitable and call it inspiration.
Honey Boy opens Nov. 29 in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, and wider on Dec. 6.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019