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I Believed Shia LaBeouf’s Apology Film. I Wish I Hadn’t.

With recent abuse allegations against him from FKA Twigs, Karolyn Pho, and Sia, it’s even clearer that a man’s apology through his art is sometimes just good PR.

Posted on December 14, 2020, at 4:01 p.m. ET

Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Whenever I write about allegedly abusive men seeking a second act — which, thanks to an abundance of material, I have to do quite often — I always get emails from other men demanding to know what kind of apology would satisfy me. A few weeks ago, I received a message about my story on Mel Gibson, hot off his terrible display in the unwatchable Fatman. “Yes Mel Gibson has had some questionable personal moments in his past but people do change,” some guy named John wrote to me. “I think you ought to let people watch the movie before you throw your feminist, millenial, [sic] me too movement spin on this.”

Great points all around, John. People do change — except when they don’t. Last week, we were reminded, yet again, that just because a man has moved on from the allegations of abuse against him — usually by ignoring them, waiting for the public to forget, or even by making art as a way to ask for forgiveness — doesn’t mean we have to move on along with him.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that singer FKA Twigs, whose legal name is Tahliah Barnett, is suing her ex-boyfriend, actor Shia LaBeouf. In her suit, she claims that he abused her physically and mentally during their 2019 relationship, which lasted just under a year. Her goal was “to explain how even a critically acclaimed artist with money, a home and a strong network of supporters could be caught in such a cycle.” The suit also mentions another ex of LaBeouf’s, stylist Karolyn Pho, who made similar claims, including that he pinned her to a bed and headbutted her while he was drunk. After the article was published, singer Sia tweeted her own allegations against LaBeouf, calling him a “pathological liar, who conned [her] into an adulterous relationship claiming to be single.”

While LaBeouf has largely denied the allegations from Barnett and Pho, he did admit that he has a long history of abusive behavior. “I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel,” he said in a statement to the Times. “I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.”

Beyond these recent allegations, LaBeouf’s history is replete with other accusations of abuse. In 2015, he reportedly got into a physical fight with his then-girlfriend, Mia Goth, who was seen with a black eye the next day. He’s been arrested for disorderly conduct and has made racist remarks, which he’s generally attributed to his alcoholism. (He now claims to be sober.) Last November, he came out with his magnum opus, Honey Boy, a semiautobiographical movie about a child actor and his abusive father. He plays the father, who very closely mirrors his real-life dad. The movie is an empathetic look not just at his abusive father, but at LaBeouf himself, contextualizing his own traumatic childhood and how it later turned him into a man who traumatized others.

I wrote about Honey Boy at the time — and about LaBeouf’s career and personal life — impressed by how the movie made sense of his trauma as a child, which inevitably led to him harming other people as he got older. Honey Boy was largely adored when it came out. It was a good movie but even better for damage control, giving the public another facet of LaBeouf: flawed, but ultimately well intentioned. Importantly, it seemed to address where his documented history of harmful behavior stems from and how he planned to change. “[Honey Boy] doesn’t necessarily absolve LaBeouf of his reckless, often abusive behavior, but it does suggest a new model for how emotionally damaged young men can heal,” I wrote at the time. “He isn’t just saying he’s sorry — though he appears to be — but rather, he’s giving a blueprint for how others can evolve.”

I thought LaBeouf could be a case study for meaningful personal reckoning and public atonement. Now I just feel like an idiot.

Honey Boy made it hard to continue to mock LaBeouf, who had spent at least a few years in a determined downward spiral of public intoxication and incoherent, arrogant ranting. Back in September, when he appeared in a Fast Times at Ridgemont High Zoom table read, his frenetic behavior seemed more entertaining than a cause for concern.

I thought LaBeouf could be a case study for meaningful personal reckoning and public atonement. Now I just feel like an idiot.

It’s hard to choose the worst part of the recent allegations against the actor. The details Barnett shared — from rules LaBeouf made about how many times a day she was supposed to kiss him to him locking her in a room when she tried to leave — are all intolerable. It’s devastating to read her explain the cost of trying to get away from him, even as a wealthy, famous woman with enough connections to get her a flight back home to the UK.

Allegations of abuse against a famous, powerful man are always disappointing, but this one somehow feels even worse than usual. The claims against LaBeouf are brutal, but the fact that he already attempted a lengthy, public mea culpa through his movie and the publicity tour around it only intensifies his duplicity. I called Honey Boy “a culmination of his apology tour,” but apology tours only work if you mean it and if you stop the behavior that forced you on the tour in the first place. Barnett and LaBeouf started dating in 2018, meaning that some of the abuse she claims may have occurred while Honey Boy was in production. It’s also possible that he was giving interviews about his recovery — from booze and from his childhood — while Barnett had just recently or was just starting to escape him.

For women who have their own stories of abuse or harassment, these allegations only serve to tell us what we already know: Just because a man says he’s sorry doesn’t mean he’s actually going to change. Plenty of women have been duped like this, believing in a man’s reformation, only to be proven wrong again and again. LaBeouf’s story resonates in a way I wish it didn’t.

Now, in retrospect, Honey Boy is a fraudulent project. It worked at the time not just because it was well written and well directed and well acted — it worked because it was supposed to be based on deep and painful truths. It was a very public rehabilitation of self. The movie suggests that LaBeouf is capable of self-awareness and self-reflection, so much so that he can tell a neat and tidy story about himself, present it to an audience, and have it feel like both art and therapy. And it was a movie cosigned by a woman director, who also gave lengthy interviews in support of LaBeouf. It was clear that in order to move forward with his career, he had to explain and apologize for his past. But that doesn’t work if your past is actually your alleged present.

The new allegations against him sting more, for me, at least, because I do believe reform is possible. I suspect most of the people who have watched Honey Boy as a story about someone in active recovery felt that redemption might be possible for LaBeouf. But this latest batch of allegations against him suggest that at least some of that self-reflection was wasted, that some of the forgiveness and trust his audience gave back to him was unwarranted, and that he may not deserve a second chance. (Or is it the third? Or fourth?) How many apology tours should someone be granted in one lifetime if they just keep engaging in the same behavior all the while?

In November, almost exactly a year after LaBeouf’s movie came out and I heaped praise upon him for it, random men on the internet like John tried to tell me that people can change. I just wish he knew how desperately I want him to be right. ●

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