Review: 'Honey Boy'

Shia LaBeouf seeks redemption, but throws pity party instead
PARENT TRAP: Shia LaBeouf plays a character based on his controlling father in 'Honey Boy.'

Plagiarists deserve no quarter, particularly plagiarists who plagiarize their apology for plagiarism. But if we can trust Shia LaBeouf—experience shows that we cannot—his childhood was unusually rough.

Honey Boy is a script the actor wrote in recovery. The buff, sullen LaBeouf surrogate Otis (Lucas Hedges) languishes poolside after a spree of violence and drunkenness that flashes before our eyes. The judge has given him a choice: four years in jail or a stint in Malibu rehab. Under the unflinching eye of Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo) Otis has to deal with his PTSD—the result of growing up a child actor.

Once, he was a 12-year-old in an LA motel beside the railroad tracks. He shared a room with his hectoring father, James (played by LaBeouf himself), who young Otis paid to be something between a personal assistant and a manager. James is a motorcycle-riding combat vet and ex-con—he did time for a sex offense he was too drunk to recall. Now he's posing as a laid-back hippie in friendly-looking oversized eyeglasses. Four years in AA has done nothing for James' King Kong-sized temper.

He's particularly pissed at his son's success. Otis gets movie-of-the week roles; James never made it bigger than being an Oklahoma rodeo clown with a novelty act involving a live chicken. The dad never misses a chance to humiliate his son, to mock his tiny "golf-pencil" penis or to force him into juggling lessons, with pushups for penalties if he drops a ball.

The most authentically horrifying scene has young Otis being made a go-between for his parents: James refuses to talk to his ex, forcing his son to both read out and repeat his mother's comments—and his father's replies—during a phone call.

At 33, LaBeouf has come a long way. Fury alone showed how he'd grown from the annoying plucky-kid acting he did in what seemed like three dozen Transformer moviesÉ not to mention the Indiana Jones sequel Lebouef stunk up with such thoroughness. This year, LaBeouf brought credible heft and humor to Peanut Butter Falcon, maybe his best performance yet—he was authentically rural, light and touching. Getting clean and sober and—who knows—showing up for public humiliation rituals with a paper bag over his head seems to have paid off.

But as a writer, he wallows. And then there's the question of authenticity in all this—is it memoir or fiction? Was LaBeouf's career as an actor just a blurry arc from being hit by a pie on a kid show to doing a ratchet pull stunt during the filming of some alien-attack blockbuster? Did he get shellshock from the slamming of clapperboards? Didn't he get something out of his career?

The director, Alma Har'el (Bombay Beach) is clearly delighted by the Valley landscapes: the high-tension electric towers simmering in the heat, as seen from the back of a motorcycle on the freeway. Photographer Natasha Braier creates deft nocturnal imagery, making the motel a riot of purple and red neon with a swimming pool amethyst. The lushness is at its peak when Otis gets some cuddles from his neighbor, the siren "Shy Girl" (FKA twigs), who dresses in half-bustier and filmy negligee like a chick in some Prince video.

During the course of this therapy-movie, we're tossed a sop about James' own background when he describes his own childhood hell in a monologue at an AA meeting, which is the kind of scene that's becoming every lazy writer's crutch. In the role of this bad dad, LaBeouf lacks the kind of magnetic evil or redeeming black humor that makes you want to watch.

James is addicted to rotten jokes—he's the kind of bad joker who insists you laugh at his weird anti-gag about the white fleck in chicken poop. Chickens are a motif—Otis, like a hen, must cross the road if he plans to get to the other side; ultimately he follows a symbolic yardbird into the place where his father dwells, to confront him at last.

It's the performance-artist in LaBeouf that makes him take this all too far. His characterization of James is like the punishing old man in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy, which took even an actor as interesting as Werner Herzog and made him boring.

Honey Boy
R; 95 Mins.
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