Shia LaBeouf came into the Sundance Film Festival last year a scandal-plagued actor with something to prove. The former child star and one time face of the Transformers franchise announced a career rebirth with Honey Boy, an autobiographical drama he not only stars in but wrote.
LaBeouf’s Israeli director, Alma Har’el had something to prove, as well, a documentary filmmaker making her first feature. Honey Boy premiered to glowing reviews and Har’el came away with a special jury prize for “vision and craft.” But, as she explained nearly a year later in introducing the film to a Toronto Film Festival audience, she took something else from Sundance.
“I realized how many people… have parents or childhood trauma or relationships that they have to forgive in order to move on,” Har’el said, going on to note that the film addresses the inherited, generational pain that so many people carry.
That generational pain Har’el speaks of is all on screen in Honey Boy. English actor Noah Jupe plays 12-year-old Otis Lort, a rising child actor not unlike LaBeouf 20 years ago. LaBeouf plays James, a version of his real-life father, a clown (literally, as LaBeouf’s dad was), alcoholic, and abusive ne’er-do-well living off his child and cultivating hopeless get-rich-quick schemes.
Like LaBeouf, Otis grows up to be an action star—now played by Lucas Hedges. Real life and reel life intersect when the troubled young actor is arrested and sentenced to rehab. In truth, LaBeouf’s journey to Honey Boy arose out of a 2017 incident when he was in Savannah, Georgia, making Peanut Butter Falcon. Arrested for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness in an expletive-laced incident caught on tape, LaBeouf was sentenced to rehab. His screenplay for Honey Boy began as part of his therapy as he dealt with his own alcohol issues and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arising from his childhood.
“It was a really big and deep long process that led to this film,” says Har’el during a visit to the Bay Area where Honey Boy screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival. “When we finished it, I feel Shia got to exorcise all of the anger he had.”
There is an odd sense of destiny that hangs over Honey Boy, a series of steps without which the film might never have been made. There is the public humiliation of LaBeouf’s arrest and court-ordered rehab, of course, but it was to Har’el that LaBeouf sent his pages, a short film set in a hotel room. It was she who suggested he expand the story and include the adult Otis. She collaborated with him through what she estimates is 80 to 90 drafts leading to the final script.
Har’el was essential to LaBeouf getting his story out there and that only happens because of the fan letter that led to their meeting. Blown away by Bombay Beach, Har’el’s award-winning 2011 documentary focused on residents of an impoverished Salton Sea community, he emailed her, leading to a dinner where they discovered they were both the children of alcoholics. A bond formed, growing tighter when he starred in her video for Sigur Rós’ “Fjögur pianó” video and then financed and executive produced her 2016 feature documentary LoveTrue. By the time, he was in rehab, LeBeouf and Har’el were close friends, so much so that she was able to convince him to overcome his qualms about playing his father.
“I think I had to just make sure that he felt safe and that he can trust me, which was something that was inherent to our relationship already,” says Har’el “The lethal combination of PTSD and alcoholism is just so real. It’s a real dive.
“So yeah, it was, it was a hard decision to make (for LaBeouf to play the role), but it was as an extremely organic continuation of the work we did. And I remember calling him and saying, ‘When you think about it, it’s exactly what we did in LoveTrue… That film was people playing with their younger selves and we had a therapist on set. It was like psychodrama… having people go into their trauma or their fears or their memories and sit next to their younger self and talk to them.”
LaBeouf’s last step before embarking on the role was to visit his father. He returned from that meeting with a sense of purpose, determined to challenge himself artistically. Meanwhile, Har’el remained mindful that the role her friend was about to embark on was a potential minefield for his mental health.
“I spoke to his therapist from the court-ordered rehab facility and she knew about everything we were doing,” Har’el says. “I tried to educate myself a lot about what is PTSD.
“She warned me about a lot of things that I should be aware of with Shia playing his father and taking on the person that has been the most abusive to him in his life. It was a learning curve for all of us.”
Perhaps, what is most surprising about Honey Boy is its lack of judgment and bitterness. LaBeouf inherited a terrible legacy from his father, but what is reflected on screen is compassion. James Lort is most certainly not a nice guy and what young Otis witnesses and experiences is disturbing. Yet, James is not portrayed simply as an abusive villain but as a troubled man beset by his own demons.
“You have to develop a sort of empathy to the person that has caused you pain,” Har’el says. “And you have to play out who he was and then you get to see what you inherited, because some of that anger and those behaviors do become yours even if they come out only when you’re triggered or they come out only when you’re put in a certain situation. That’s the tools you’ve had, that you’ve been given.
“You know, we see a lot of movies that are cathartic, but, but it’s still acting. But this was a real catharsis. Bizarrely, this was real, you know, this was a real person at a junction in his life where he thought that he’s never going to act again and was given the opportunity to act again, but only if he can connect to his father who caused him pain.”—Pam Grady