Sundance 2019: Honey Boy

By Matthew Buxton

Honey Boy follows the story of a young boy named Otis (Noah Jupe) who has found success as a child actor in Hollywood. On set, Otis is truly a star making his way into the world of fame and creating a name for himself, but behind the scenes he is trapped with his abusive and alcoholic father (Shia LaBeouf–– also the screenwriter & actor made famous with his character Louis Stevens from Disney Channel’s Even Stevens). The father is facing the fact that his 12-year-old son has made it farther in the world of entertainment than he did as a clown rodeo performer. As a result of having to pay for the bills and motel room they are living in, Otis has to navigate being his father’s employer as well as holding onto his childlike desire to have a father figure that will love and care for him.

The film, directed by Alma Har’el, follows two timelines–Otis as a young boy growing up, and Otis as a young adult (Lucas Hedges) going through rehab. In the other narrative, Otis is placed in court-ordered rehab to face his deepest trauma and insecurities. He has to decide between letting the counselors into his dark past, or facing prison time. It is in this line of the story where the pain from Otis’ father’s abuse seems to finally come to surface–damage that couldn’t be fully comprehended until adulthood. Both strands of the narrative weave back and forth beautifully and allow Otis to develop into a very raw character who seems to have gone astray like his father. And the ultimate question of the film is can Otis find himself even through the pain that has left him alone and lost?

This U.S. Dramatic contestant is beautifully shot and directed with frames that are as long and achingly beautiful as the story that unfolds. The stellar soundtrack takes the audience through what feels like an abandoned carnival ride that has been running slowly for years–beautifully innocent yet tormentingly depressing. It is truly an agonizing exploration of sound and color that reflect the child-like innocence in a boy who is haunted by the abuse of a parent. Shia Labeouf creates a script that is fully engaging in every moment and shows just how grown up 12-year-old Otis is, even if he didn’t ask to be. Everything about Honey Boy is raging with beauty and suffocating with pain.

The film is imbued with important symbols in Otis’ life that help him to accept the damage from his past and move forward with love and forgiveness. Whether it be the stunt harness Otis’ father won’t help him take off when he’s young and in which he still can’t take off as an adult actor, or the frequently recurring appearance from a chicken that seems to represent the living idea that Otis’ father never loved him, the film will keep you searching for answers up until the very end. In this unique and heartbreaking coming-of-age story, it’s not up until the very end when you realize that this was never about Otis. Paralleling the strategic interlacing narratives, the film takes the threads of documentary and fiction and weaves them so tightly you might not even know which one you saw. As the film draws to the closing credits, the painful realization hits that the patronizing nickname given by his father was never truly given to Otis, but in fact, Shia LaBeouf is the Honey Boy. And to answer the question, based on LaBeouf’s successful navigation to adulthood, yes, he has found himself.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.