We’re officially in Oscars season, which means there’s been a slew of Oscarbait movies. You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about The Irishman and Marriage Story. And those are just the Netflix movies. And it’s barely December. Both of them are excellent by the way, but I won’t spend time reviewing them here. Instead… I want to talk about Honey Boy. It’s not a Netflix movie, and judging by the scarce showtime listings, it’s not getting as much hype.
The movie stars Shia LaBeouf playing his own abusive father, based on a script he wrote in rehab. Let that sink in. Imagine if you had to 1) relive your past abuse and 2) play your abuser. And on top of that, LaBeouf makes sure his father is fully fleshed out, never one-sided, and even pitiable. He doesn’t play a villain, but a broken human with his own trauma and insecurities, one who is deeply aware of his failings as a father. If nothing else, this is a stunning personal accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked.
There are two parallel stories: one about his relationship with his father as a 12-year-old child actor, the other about his time in rehab as a young adult. Noah Jupe (Wonder, A Quiet Place) and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) are excellent in their roles, respectively capturing the quickly-fading optimism of a struggling preteen, and the rock-bottom resignation of an addict.
It’s not groundbreaking to say that Lucas Hedges is terrific at nearly every role he’s in – this movie is no exception. His portrayal of PTSD and longstanding resentment is spot-on as he struggles to resolve his past, and reluctantly learns new ways to cope. Given that Shia LaBeouf barely appears in this half of the story, Hedges carries it almost single-handedly. It feels a little disconnected at times, like it should be its own movie. It works best when it ties directly to the other narrative, but it loses steam when Lucas Hedges is chasing a chicken (it’s a metaphor – trust me, it’s not as corny as it sounds).
Noah Jupe is equally remarkable in the other half of the story. He gives an authentic, relatable performance, and he holds his own opposite LaBeouf as the object of abuse, a role that must have been similarly painful and emotionally exhausting.
One scene in particular stands out. He’s on the phone with his mother in the same room as his father. They desperately want to argue, but they refuse to talk to each other, so they use young Shia as their middleman. He quickly finds himself playing the part of both parents: being shouted at from both sides, shouting from both sides, terrified of disappointing either of them, and fighting to stay out of it while trapped in the middle of it. It’s a challenging role for any actor, but Noah does a superb job of capturing the inner turmoil without coming across as over-dramatic or immature.
As for LaBeouf’s performance, as already mentioned, it’s phenomenal. At this point, I’d recommend just seeing the movie. It holds up well enough independent of the real-life story. But, knowing about LaBeouf’s intimate connection with the trauma turns it from an excellent, Oscar-worthy film into a deeply cathartic one.