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Honey Boy Review: Shia LaBeouf Interrogates Even Stevens Past in Bracing Drama

The Amazon release stars LaBeouf as his own father

Oliver Whitney

Following the annual film festival gauntlet through Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, awards season is already in full bloom. But this year has a different feel: streaming platforms are ascendant. The success of Roma at the 2019 Academy Awards has become a feature, not a bug for the film industry; Netflix has a host of major contenders rolling out over the remainder of the year. Amazon, too, will release a handful of titles to its platform, hoping to capitalize on its past success with films like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick. Will we look back on 2019 as the year awards season officially embraced the theatrical disrupters? That's the guess here at TV Guide, which is why we'll be providing reviews for the year's biggest streaming movies throughout awards season.

One of the most fascinating things about Honey Boy is that it doesn't feel like a film explicitly about Shia LaBeouf and his troubled past. While LaBeouf, making his screenwriting debut, based the film on his traumatic childhood and experience in rehab and also plays a version of his own father, Honey Boy refreshingly lacks egotism. Watching it, you know that Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, Ford v Ferrari) getting pied in the face while wearing a Hawaiian shirt is a reference to Even Stevens; similarly, Lucas Hedges being ziplined across a blockbuster set, mid-explosion, is meant to evoke the Transformers franchise. And yet as confessional of a film as it may be, there's a notable distance between LaBeouf's on-screen presence and the material, and Honey Boy doesn't come across as a biopic about the former child star's life. Instead, director Alma Har'el uses LaBeouf's story to give us a sensitive portrait of generational trauma, PTSD, and the pained and revelatory process of reflecting on the abusive relationships that inform who we grow into and how we move through the world.

Best Movies of 2019 to Stream Right Now

Honey Boy, an Amazon release that recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, hops between Otis, the fictionalized version of LaBeouf, at two ages: Hedges plays him as an angsty, give-no-effs 22-year-old Hollywood star and Jupe as a perceptive, bright-eyed 12-year-old. After the older Otis is arrested following a drinking binge and car crash, he's sent to a rehab facility where, much to his disdain, a counselor (Laura San Giacomo) encourages him to reflect on his past. In those reflections we flash back 10 years to the young Otis as he splits his time between the set and a run-down motel where he lives with his father, James, an abusive alcoholic and vet played by LaBeouf with balding, stringy hair and wire-rimmed glasses.


Noah Jupe, Honey Boy


The scenes between Jupe and LaBeouf are the most affecting of film, with both actors building off one another in a pair of heartfelt performances. In one powerful moment that showcases Jupe's best work to date, his Otis translates a fight between his parents. In a high-pitched tone, he imitates his aggravated mother on the other end of the phone to his father sitting across from him, then swiftly deepens his voice and hardens his face to relate his father's violent, bellowing replies back to her. Otis, a child actor, is literally performing his trauma before our eyes, which only becomes more meta when you remember who wrote the screenplay. It's one of the most upsetting scenes I saw at TIFF this year, and one of the most wrenching depictions I've ever seen of the way a child of divorce caught between two abusive parents can become so fragmented by that experience, often forced to code-switch between them.

The time-jumping nature of the film could easily feel uneven, but works thanks to Har'el. There's a patient, lyrical quality to her directing style here -- while known for her documentary filmmaking (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue), this marks her narrative debut -- that allows the film to show both the tenderness and harrowing distress that forms Otis' relationship with his father, and older Otis' struggle to reckon with it. While the film doesn't quite build to the emotionally cathartic finale you hope it would end on, it still left me excited for what future fictional work Har'el may tackle next.

Honey Boy will arrive in theaters on Nov. 8, before later being available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.