Otis Lort (portrayed as a child by Noah Jupe and as an adult by Lucas Hedges) is the stand-in for Shia LaBeouf in “Honey Boy,” which is made clear from the start as we see adult Lort acting in an obvious “Transformers” pastiche (Lort even lets off an extended string of “No, no, no, no!” while filming) while the young Lort works on a sitcom that clearly resembles “Even Stevens.” However, if you walked into “Honey Boy” not knowing Shia LaBeouf from Raviv Ulman, that’s no problem, this production works plenty well on its own merits. The opening scene of the production, for instance, proves to be stirring for all viewers regardless of their LaBeouf knowledge as we see both young and adult versions of Otis Lort experience the same phenomenon of being lunged backwards by wire-work on the set of a filmed production.
In both instances, they’re being pulled around by elements beyond their control, with the young version of Lort even falling backwards into a black void for a moment, a symbol of a child being plunged backwards into the abyss by forces meant to guide him forward. It’s a compelling pair of images that immediately provide unity between the two parts of Lort’s life and establish the sort of distinct visual sensibilities of director Alma Har’el. These shots factor into opening scenes making clear the story structure of “Honey Boy,” which see’s adult Otis Lort being forced to enter a rehabilitation clinic after a drunk driving accident. Lort is clearly somebody struggling with problems related to addiction and realizing the value of emotionally opening up to other people and those aren’t issues he’s showing much desire to tackle.
In this clinic, though, Lort is forced to confront his past by a therapist. Extended flashback sequences showing young Lort living with his father, James Lort (Shia LaBeouf), in a seedy motel transpire as the adult version of Otis Lort comes to terms with how the past has impacted his present-day circumstances. “Honey Boy” is frequently a three-man show between the two versions of Otis Lort and their father and it’s remarkable the way actors Jupe, Hedges and LaBeouf are able to make their individual roles unique creations while also lending a sense of unity across the trio of performances. Hedges’ depiction of adult Otis Lort going on a binge of drugs and drinking in his trailer in the opening scene of “Honey Boy” is full of little physical ticks I could also pick up in LaBeouf’s performance as James, a subtle way of indicating that Otis shares traits with his father beyond them both suffering from the sickness of addiction.
LaBeouf and Jupe, meanwhile, have a fascinating rapport together that’s like a rollercoaster of emotions and moods, you never know where James Lort is going next, he can go from demeaning his son to hugging him in the span of mere minutes. LaBeouf’s performance and script utilize this characters unpredictability not only to enhance the sense of danger in young Otis Lort’s life, but also add humanity to this complicated figure in this child’s life. Sometimes James can be funny, he has a line about the savvy business sensibilities of Dolly Parton that’s hysterical. Sometimes, like when he’s divulging his past in an AA meeting, he tugs at your heartstrings.
Showing these multitudes of James Lort isn’t meant to excuse his abusive behavior, rather, it’s meant to be a symbol of how Otis Lort is starting to confront his past rather than keep it bottled up. Part of that comes from seeing his Dad as a person and rendering this character as a human being is one of LaBeouf’s greatest achievements here both as an actor and a writer. An equal level of humanity is brought to the perspective of Otis Lort, his struggles with even contemplating the idea of emotionally opening up to the past are realized with terrifying authenticity, the sense that Otis has been keeping these feelings inside for far too long is portrayed beautifully by Lucas Hedges.
Recurring visual symbols (like a daredevil chicken that James used to work with in his days as a rodeo clown) tied to James Lort that haunt adult Otis Lort in his stint at rehab also serve as an example of how combining specific character details with interesting on-screen imagery is the name of the game for Har’el’s exemplary directorial work in “Honey Boy.” Also impressing on a visual level here is how and what colors Har’el and Braier use throughout the production.
The dynamic between Otis and Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), a friendship between two people trapped with abusive people, isn’t just memorable for the way it utilizes purple hues, it also results in some of the most poignant moments of “Honey Boy” as we get to see Otis finally finding an adult who can provide him with some sort of emotional support. Their friendship is enhanced by how much subtle but distinctive personality FKA Twigs brings to the role, just one of a number of small yet memorable supporting turns found throughout the movie from actors like Martin Starr and Laura San Giacomo. Such roles not only work due to the actors portraying them, but also due to the level of humanity “Honey Boy” offers even the most throwaway roles in its story. How appropriate for a movie about a man getting in touch with his past and how it formed him as a human being to extend such a humanistic approach to the figures populating its plot. All of that humanity ensures that “Honey Boy” makes for a fascinating dive into Shia LaBeouf’s past. It’s a story so deeply personal that it really could only come from him but as executed by director Alma Har’el, it’s become “Honey Boy,” a movie whose emotional power, unforgettable performances and sublime filmmaking can be appreciated by all.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.