For the most part, actors playing public figures, the kind of acting the Academy tends to reward, is neither as difficult nor as interesting as it’s cracked up to be. At least, that’s what I thought before I saw Lucas Hedges play Shia Labeouf in Honey Boy. Maybe it’s because we’ve been exposed to so much extemporaneous Shia over the years (off-the-cuff Labeouf, say) — the meltdowns, the publicity stunts, the oddball videos — but watching Hedges, a guy who doesn’t really look anything like Labeouf, adopt his jerky mannerisms and embody his manic aura… it’s damn near a magic trick.
Everything I thought I’d forgotten about Shia Labeouf’s public persona comes rushing back with every Hedges twitch and tremor. The rest of the frame melts away and I sit in mesmerized silence at this glorious, uncanny weirdo. What peculiar circumstances collide to produce a person like this? Ahh, but that’s what we’re about to find out.
Honey Boy is Shia Labeouf’s life story, see, or so we’re encouraged to believe, written by LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el, according to the credits. The film opens on Hedges, as “Otis Lort,” shouting “No no no no no no!” on the set of an action movie before a pulley system attached to his chest yanks him through a fog of fake smoke for an explosion shot. It’s great marionette imagery, and also, hey, Transformers, remember that?
This will become one branch of Honey Boy‘s two parallel storylines — 2009 Otis Lort, played by Hedges, crashing his car, mangling his hand, and getting sent to rehab in one (remember that??), and 12-year-old Otis Lort, played by Noah Jupe, living in a seedy motel with his flaky-yet-intense, unpredictable ex rodeo clown of a father in another. Compared to all the other “daddy issues” stories out there — watered down and stepped on, filtered through Alan McKee, turned into hero’s journeys and sent to space — Honey Boy is like sucking on a live electrical wire. It’s introspection in its rawest form.
Labeouf’s barely fictionalized father, James Lort — played by Shia himself, bald on top with shoulder-length hair and round glasses, looking like Easy Rider by way of John Lennon with a dash of every ’70s serial killer you’ve ever seen — slaps Otis around from time to time, slips into drug use, brags about his big dick, and is a consistent embarrassment. But that trauma is almost secondary to the simple fact of his general unpredictability. James’ moods accelerate like a Lamborghini, variously charismatic, apathetic, wounded, scheming — a motor-mouthed bullshitter in its purest form (he also can’t breathe out of his nose because of past cocaine use, something Labeouf communicates clearly with his performance long before his character says it out loud).
You just can’t plan for this guy. It’s hard to imagine something more shattering to a person’s nerves than having to live with a person like this, the kind of guy who corners service workers and traps anyone within earshot in a barrage of unearned ball-busting and coarse dad jokes. Honey Boy is almost a contest for who’s more mesmerizing, Labeouf as his own nightmare father or Hedges as the manic offspring.
It helps that Honey Boy manages to be both Labeouf’s personal story (or… so we’re led to believe) and a nice mash-up of already bankable genres: the semi-fictionalized actor memoir (see: Lady Bird, mid90s), the unpredictable dad memoir (The Glass Castle, This Boy’s Life, Liar’s Club, Captain Fantastic), and the rehab memoir (Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot, A Million Little Pieces, Girl Interrupted). Knowing what we know about Labeouf’s past penchant for plagiarism, it’s fair to wonder how much of Honey Boy actually is Shia Labeouf’s personal story and how much is a camera-ready story arc ginned up for awards season.
On that score, Labeouf and Har’el seem to hint at an explanation. At one point, Otis (aka Young Shia, played by Jupe) rages about his father’s AA storytelling: “His share stories aren’t even his, they’re just an amalgamation of other peoples’ share stories!”
In another emotional moment, Labeouf (as his father) sputters “You wanted the real shit? This is it. Metal rusts, wood rots. Nobody wants that. It’s only the stories that live on — fables.”
They seem to be subtly making the case for fictionalization and pastiche even in the context of an overtly autobiographical story — one that includes the requisite family photos of Shia and his dad during the end credits (receipts, in modern internet parlance). It’s also a tacit justification for what we’ve already intuited: whether this story is true matters far less than whether it feels true.
We’ve seen a lot of stories sort of like Honey Boy, but rarely so intense and so mesmerizing. There’s a joy to watching Lucas Hedges play Shia or Shia play his father that transcends the story around it. I’d probably watch Hedges perform as Shia at a county fair. Shia as his father, Hedges as adult Shia, Jupe as kid Shia are all so good that you quickly forget who’s playing who and seamlessly accept the film’s reality. Meanwhile, it’s got Clifton Collins Jr. and Laura San Giacomo in memorable supporting roles and FKA Twigs in a breakout performance as Young Shia’s neighbor and mother figure (I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know who FKA Twigs was before this, but with a name like FKA Twigs it feels like I should have).
Honey Boy crystallizes everything Shia Labeouf’s performance art persona from 2009 until now seemed to be trying to say: that authenticity and authorship are dull considerations compared to insight and emotional truth.