Sometimes as a journalist you catch a glimpse of something when you’re talking to a child actor.
Maybe Macaulay Culkin is too interested in “performing,” distracting you as the interviewer. River Phoenix? Antic, manic, “wired” you decide later.
You hear the stories, the “stage parents,” the “growing up too fast” and worse. But some, like Amanda Bynes, are too put together to ever give a hint. Until later. Corey Feldman? He only gave away the game as an adult.
I remember chatting up the very young Natalie Portman and her contemporary, Mia Kirshner, and wondering just what kinds of parents thought it was a good idea to put these girls in sexually-charged roles in their early, early teens? Maybe they’ll tell us in their books, like Sally Field.
But Shia LaBeouf hid it better than most of them. He was earnest, lots of eye-contact, making the sale (talking about “Holes” and then “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and later “Disturbia”). His patter was hyped-up, breathless. And it only sputtered and deflected when you mentioned the p-word — “parents.” He had his work-arounds ready to recite, there. Not that he ever, for a second, came over as dishonest. Diplomatic or candid, always eager, wanting-to-be-liked to the point of being confrontational, eyes on the prize — a dazzling talent.
But the short sprint to stardom, anchoring franchise pictures, working working working — because when he wasn’t working, he was turning up in the tabloids, drunk or worse — gave everybody pause. Someday, you’d think, somebody’s going to put this young man on a couch.
LaBeouf decided to do that with a movie. “Honey Boy” is his searing, unsentimental statement on that life, that “career” and the guy who put him where he is today, the good and the bad of it. He scripted this semi-autobiographical drama about coming to terms with a traumatic childhood of grueling, dangerous work, the skills passed on and the awful parenting that got him where he is today.
And LaBeouf plays a version of his own father in it.
Three towering performances make “Honey Boy” one of the best pictures of the year. There’s LaBeouf, creating an “origin story” through the man who schooled him and pushed him, a wound-up fast-talking substance-abusing ex-con with anger issues, bitterness issues and an outlet for all that rage and disappointment — his kid.
Noah Jupe of “Wonder,” “A Quiet Place” and most recently “Ford v. Ferrari,” is Otis, a mop-topped spitting image of young Shia, smoking and swearing at 12, and already trying to declare his independence from a careless father who drills him and works him like the meal ticket he is.
As the adult Otis Lucas Hedges channels Shia, vocal mannerisms to physical tics (intense eye contact, followed by eyes cast down in fury), all mastered in a performance of hurry, panic and temper.
We meet Otis (Hedges) fully formed, already in a franchise (resembling “Transformers”), doing a yanked-back-by-an-explosion stunt over and over again, an unpleasant experience that his wince gives away he’s been suffering through for a decade.
Still, he has it all, right? It’s just that he’s alone, tormented, grasping at connections.
It all goes wrong for Otis, distracted and drunk behind the wheel. That, too, is a force of habit. And he’s sent to rehab because one judge has had enough of it. It is there, amid the “hug yourself” and “trust” and “primal scream” exercises that he faces his inquisitor, a therapist (Laura San Giacomo of “Pretty Woman”).
She’s not hearing his glib “I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex!” Classic Shia, by the way. Their sessions hunt for “exposures.” She flat out tells the rich punk movie star that she sees “clear signs of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).”
And that’s how we meet the 12 year-old Otis, living in a fleabag motel across the courtyard from hookers, riding to and from the set on the back of father James’ (LaBeouf) motorcycle, jolted awake so that he won’t tumble off in traffic.
This is a bracing, maddening love-hate relationship, a man who breathlessly declares, “I’m your biggest CHEERLEADER, Honey Boy” in one moment, and belittles the kid in every other.
Otis wearily looks over the call-sheet to see when he needs to be on set and what scenes he’s shooting tomorrow. James just wants the envelope it came in because “they put the per diem in there.”
We get a glimpse of the set where Otis is put through the ringer, his distracted Dad rarely looking out for him, backstage in his Army Vet “POW-MIA” biker vest, John Lennon glasses and bandana, trying out his pick-up lines on a cute production assistant.
As adult Otis pieces these moments together in the fictive “present” (2005), younger Otis (1995) is trying to bond with a Big Brothers of America set up by his never-seen mom. Clifton Collins, Jr. plays this guy, all about baseball games and role-modeling, resented and “tested” by crazy-jerk James at every oopportunity.
But for all James’ bad traits and parenting lapses, all his tirades aimed at his estranged wife, we see him coaching the kid in comedy because “It’s ALL clowning.” He was a rodeo clown, once upon a time. He pushes his son to re-do a scene until he believes it, or “until you make me laugh.”
We see James in AA meetings, hear him remembering prison, and see Otis left alone, making friends with the young prostitute (FKA Twigs) in the motel, struggling to either break free from this dead weight in his life, or at least put the old man in his place.
“You’re my employee!”
Jupe lets us see the apple, sensitive, but straining to fall further from the tree, trapped by circumstances and family history, despite his growing success. LaBeouf pulls out all the stops, holds nothing back — love, jealousy, addiction and other weaknesses — as that tree.
And Hedges brings it all home, brilliantly encompassing all that these past experiences would produce; a talented, uninhibited and very polished performer who cannot keep it all together and bottled up the moment “that’s a wrap” is pronounced on a film set.
Whatever first-time feature director Alma Har’el brought to this, just keeping her eye on the “effect” in light of all the “causes” is a signal contribution. Maybe she just, as the old saying goes, “stayed out of their way.” But the film’s grit and tone are unerring. And there’s a lot to be said of a filmmaker who knows how to let a great cast get down to business and tell a story that’s as raw as this.
Child actors occasionally tell their stories, after retirement. And the documentary “The Hollywood Complex” from a few years back captured some of the behind-the-scenes desperation of families gambling all on turning their children into stars and meal-tickets.
“Honey Boy” just tells us one story, with judgement and compassion, with an honesty that surprises and moves us. And it leaves it to us to decide if it was all worth it, if indeed the end justifies the means. You will never look at a child’s performance in a film or TV show the same way after this.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some sexual material and drug use
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs, Clifton Collins Jr., Martin Starr and Laura San Giacomo.
Credits: Directed by Alma Har’el, script by Shia LaBeouf. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:34