Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Honey Boy: Coming to Terms

Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy.

Shia LaBeouf does first-rate work in Honey Boy – not only as the leading actor but even more impressively as the screenwriter. The movie, an absolute knockout, is based on LaBeouf’s own relationship with his father, who is called James Lort on screen and played by LaBeouf, a trick that, as far as I know, no other film performer has ever tried to pull off. The role of LaBeouf is played by Noah Jupe as a twelve-year-old child actor named Otis whose father – divorced from his (off-screen) mother – acts as a combination guardian and manager when he’s on a shoot; and by Lucas Hedges as a twenty-two-year-old alcoholic hellion, arrested for the third time for driving under the influence and sent by a judge to rehab before he appears for his court date. Honey Boy opens with the older Otis filming a complicated action sequence that climaxes with a conflagration; it serves as a metaphor for his life and ends with a close-up of Hedges in a state of bewilderment and emotional paralysis in which performance and essence are indistinguishable. What follows is a montage of Otis’s chaotic, sex- and alcohol-fueled off-camera life culminating in the drunken car crash. Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), the first of two counselors he sees in rehab, assures him he has post-traumatic stress. “No, I don’t!” Otis protests. “From what?” The question comes out of a decade of ferocious repression, and the flashbacks to the young Otis’s precarious, besieged life with his alcoholic, druggy father, who carries around a lifetime of rage that erupts in unpredictable bursts, sometimes verbal and sometimes physical, answer it.

LaBeouf and Alma Har’el, the director, thus set up what looks like it will be a conventional addict movie like the Clean and Sober (1998) with Michael Keaton or 28 Days (2000) with Sandra Bullock, in which the protagonist has to let go of the delusion that he or she is wily enough to fool the veteran counselors and get through the month in rehab without actually grappling with the disease. When Alec (Martin Starr), the other counselor, sends Otis into the woods to scream and on his return Otis thanks him for providing such a meaningful exercise, Alec asks him if he’s acting. What makes these scenes unusual is that there’s no simple answer to Alec’s question – for Otis, as, perhaps, for every talented actor, performance and reality overlap. The movie is all about performance. James, himself an adult child of an alcoholic, immolated himself on drink and dope after leaving the army and landed in prison for three years on a sex offender charge. He attends AA meeting regularly and boasts of his years of sobriety, but he leaves his son in their motel room one night and goes out and gets high on crack, and his get-rich scheme is harvesting pot near the freeway. In rehab Otis tells Dr. Moreno that even James’s AA “shares” are an amalgam of the ones he’s heard from other addicts, and the very first thing we hear from him is bullshit. Chatting up a woman on the set of the TV show Otis is shooting, he berates his son for using the word “fuck,” playing the part of a conscientious father striving to keep his boy from absorbing bad Hollywood influences. But when they’re alone, James not only curses non-stop; he gives Otis cigarettes as a reward for good work, though he cautions him to smoke them in his room so that their motel neighbors – who are mostly whores – won’t think James isn’t an admirable father. James used to be a clown, and Otis affirms his assertion that he could have been a star himself if his path hadn’t led him to a jail cell. But Otis is the one with the gift of being able to cross the line between acting and reality that gives the best acting its core of truth. Giving one of the most imaginative performances I’ve ever seen by a young actor, curly-haired Noah Jupe presents a potent blend of sensitivity and bravado, precociousness and childish vulnerability. A sentimental on-camera exchange with his TV father that ends with a declaration of love haunts Otis; he sits outside their motel room, watching James nap, and imagines that his real father is the one telling him that he loves his son more than words can say. The clich├ęs become real, and then they fool Otis into thinking that he can confront his father and demand kinder treatment. The consequences are disheartening.

The rehab scenes are very good, with surprisingly tender, grounded work from Laura San Giacomo and a performance by Hedges that is his best work so far. (It’s nice to see him back in form after Boy Erased and Ben Is Back, which are the kind of phony social-problem melodramas that chew up actors.) But it’s the flashbacks that make Honey Boy special, and it’s here, in the scenes where Otis alternately challenges and bucks up and is emotionally terrorized by his father, that LaBeouf’s writing soars. No other father-son scenes come to mind that are remotely like these, with abrupt, bruising shifts of mood and tone, and the rants he’s written for himself to deliver are wildly original. So is LaBeouf’s acting. I’ve always liked him, but his bluntness as a performer has sometimes been a limitation, even though it’s often mitigated by charm and charisma. (I grew weary of him halfway through American Honey.) In this picture he has an element of danger I haven’t seen from him before. It arises out of James’s paranoia: he’s in competition with everyone, he believes everyone is out to make him look bad, and there’s a macho edge to his behavior – he’ll hold Otis’s hand but he drops it as soon as they get in public, because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a chicken hawk. When he finds out that his ex-wife’s current boyfriend Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.), who seems like a kindly, straight-up guy, has been spending time with Otis, taking him to the rodeo, his fury over the competition propels him to assume, absurdly, that Tom is a pedophile, so he gets Otis to invite him to the motel for a barbecue, pretends to be friendly, then threatens to kill him and shoves him into the pool. LaBeouf lets us see the malevolence seething under his southern-country-boy hospitality, but when he lets it out, it’s terrifying. (I thought of Harvey Keitel as Ellen Burstyn’s suitor in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.)

The Israel-born Alma Har’el has made some documentaries and shorts, but Honey Boy is her first full-length feature. It has a rough-hewn lyricism, and her instincts for capturing performance rhythms are uncanny. She and her cinematographer, Natasha Braier, do wonders with the motel scenes, including the not-quite-romance between Otis and a Latina hooker (FKA Twigs) who looks about seventeen. I couldn’t quite decipher the chicken motif, but the rest of the movie is pretty remarkable. It’s still expanding at the end, when Otis is finally able to reconcile in his mind with the father who caused him pain that was also, he tells Dr. Moreno, the only thing of value he ever passed on to his son. What Otis has to do is to locate the element in their relationship that was sweet – the moments of peacetime in the midst of the war that James was always fighting with the world and that he kept dragging Otis into. When he accomplishes this task, in the last moments of the movie, they require some fantasy mixed in with the truth, just like Otis’s acting.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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