There are two distinct reasons why Honey Boy, out this week, is both a powerful and deeply painful film to watch. The first is the story — about a young boy trying to make it as an actor while living in a motel with his emotionally and physically abusive father who struggles with sobriety. As the boy grows up and becomes famous, he is crippled by his childhood trauma, only to become destructive, angry, and lost. In one particularly gutting scene, 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) is asked by his father, James (Shia LaBeouf), if he understands how it feels to be paid by his son. “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you,” Otis replies.
The other story — arguably more interesting if only because we, as viewers, have an insatiable need to know every detail about a famous person’s life — is about Shia LaBeouf himself, who wrote and stars in the largely autobiographical Honey Boy. He takes on the heady task of inhabiting the role of his father as he hits the child version of himself, berates him, forgets about him, screams at him, isolates him from his other relationships, fills him with fear, and, eventually, is left with nearly nothing. “I think he’s done the bravest thing anyone could do,” director Alma Har’el told the Wrap. “He played his own father with whom he has the most complicated relationship with. … Whenever the demons came, we danced with them.” Much like the adult Otis, LaBeouf started working through his trauma — and, consequently, a script — while in court-ordered rehab.
While reviews for the film itself are mixed so far, it’s clear that this is LaBeouf’s best performance. “It’s one of the most messily believable portraits of a bad dad we have ever seen for a while,” said the Guardian.
Vanity Fair wrote, “This is one of the actor’s finest, roughest performances; that he is channeling his own father to his tell this story … makes it not only impressive, but disarming and moving.” Earlier this week, LaBeouf accepted a screenwriting award at the Hollywood Film Awards, where he thanked the police officer who arrested him in 2017.
“Smooth waters never made a skilled sailor,” LaBeouf recently told Variety. “This shit’s just sort of helped my life big time. I wouldn’t have had a performance like this had I not played in the mud a little bit.”
And LaBeouf has had his share of mud.
After gaining mainstream success at 14 on the Disney Channel and starring in a few poorly reviewed but financially successful blockbusters, his behavior suddenly became baffling: He appeared in a few Lars von Trier movies and dabbled in some bizarre performance art, which appeared to be an attempt to both interrogate and reject his fame.
And then there were his legal troubles: He was arrested for disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and assault with a deadly weapon. He crashed his car, broke his hand, spat on a cop, and got into a bar fight. He was filmed screaming and threatening his then-girlfriend (and eventual ex-wife) Mia Goth in public. He went to rehab and tried to restart his career. By his late twenties, he had formally tipped over from child star with tons of potential to verified train wreck.
There’s nothing revolutionary or revelatory about a child actor reflecting on his deeply troubling childhood and what fame has given and taken away. Lindsay Lohan, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Demi Lovato, Amanda Bynes, Britney Spears, Dustin Diamond — there’s an endless list of children who have grappled with their early fame in various ways. All were made famous thanks to a combination of talent, a network of adults willing to turn them into stars, and parents equally prepared to leverage their kids’ childhoods for success.
Some child actors go on to find success as they get older. Others don’t. Many live out dark lives.
But LaBeouf now appears eager to take responsibility for his own behavior by publicly interrogating his trauma. The timing is pretty perfect; while the rest of us are grappling with what bad men leave in their wake, he is giving an explanation for his behavior from the very beginning.
This 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. He has now admitted that he has been a deeply shitty adult. 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. And Honey Boy shows exactly how that evolution happened.
LaBeouf was born in Los Angeles to Shayna Saide, an artist, and Jeffrey LaBeouf, a Vietnam War veteran, in 1986. LaBeouf, 33, has often described his father as an artist with a drug addiction. “He didn’t know when the party was over,” LaBeouf told the Los Angeles Times in 2007, nearly seven years before his own substance issues and legal troubles would become public. “He didn’t know how to be a father at the time.” Like a lot of child stars, LaBeouf was preternaturally talented. He started doing stand-up at 10, telling the paper: “My shtick at that time was the 50-year-old mouth on the 10-year-old kid.”
It’s only in hindsight that a child actor seems to betray some kind of profound talent. No one watches Escape to Witch Mountain and thinks, That Kim Richards was supposed to be a famous actor and not the saddest part of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Would LaBeouf’s early comedic work be remembered and scrutinized so much if he hadn’t turned out to be such a sad, complicated adult?
LaBeouf now appears eager to take responsibility for his own behavior by publicly interrogating his trauma.
Regardless, you can see his comedic talent on Even Stevens, which ran on the Disney Channel from 2000 to 2003 and made LaBeouf a breakout star. The show’s plot was simple: The lazy, mischievous younger brother acts as a constant nuisance to his type A bigger sister. Mayhem ensues, but everyone continues to be a loving family. In the show, LaBeouf was charming and lovable as a modern Dennis the Menace. In real life, for much of his adolescence, he shuttled between the Even Stevens set and his own chaotic childhood home. It’s clear from Honey Boy that he didn’t get into acting merely because he was great at it or because he enjoyed it. On some level, it had to be a respite to what was going on at home. It had to become another, more stable kind of family.
“I seem to be safer in my life when I’m working,” he told the Today show when he was 17. “It just makes everything better.” But, as child actors like Brad Renfro make clear, being a teenage workaholic isn’t always a sustainable solution to trauma.
Honey Boy follows two timelines: one where Otis (Lucas Hedges) is in his twenties and entering rehab, and another where he’s a child actor trying to manage a job and his father’s verbal and physical abuse. Otis, much like LaBeouf, is a child star on a slapstick sitcom seemingly marketed to other children. He’s a clown, just like his dad, who was a rodeo clown who used to perform with a chicken but never became a big success. But that’s not the case for his son, at least. Otis shows up to early call times, hits his mark, gets pies in the face, and goes home to a father whose only real success is making sure his son goes to work on time. The sole form of tenderness or affection Otis gets is from a much older motel neighbor, played by LaBeouf’s former real-life girlfriend, singer FKA Twigs.
Otis’s father is viciously abusive to his son. He mocks his talent and his manhood, fills him with his own rage, rewards him with cigarettes, goes missing when he’s angry. In Honey Boy’s most upsetting scene, Otis sits on the phone with his mother, serving as an intermediary between his mother and father, because neither will communicate directly with the other. I’m not sure there’s anything more unbearable than a 12-year-old acting as a proxy for his parents as he relays to his father that his mother said he raped her. (In 2018, LaBeouf talked about his PTSD, and, namely, hearing his mother being raped.)
Ultimately, Honey Boy is kinder than it maybe should be to Jeffrey LaBeouf, a convicted sex offender who spent two years in jail after trying to rape a minor.
But it does paint a complex portrait of a man otherwise easy to write off, someone who was both abusive and loving, who tended to his son while also tearing him down. Otis — and LaBeouf — really does seem to believe that his father was just doing his best (there are a number of scenes of the elder LaBeouf attending AA meetings and trying to stay sober), and priming him for greatness down the road. It’s not a very tidy narrative, but it is an honest one.
The film also attempts to show how a child star born out of the Disney mold, full of aggression and fury, becomes an action star. LaBeouf began to shed the prepubescent look in his twenties, and became, seemingly on purpose, markedly less funny. He also made a hard pivot toward some of the worst movies he’s ever made.
Michael Bay’s Transformers series and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fashioned him into a heartthrob action star. “My life’s got to be flawless,” he said in 2007, the same year the first Transformers was released, right after his 21st birthday. “It’s pretty simple when you think about it: Just don’t fuck up.”
But it was also on the Transformers set that a lot of LaBeouf’s cracks begin to show, and it’s surely not a coincidence that Honey Boy starts with Otis on the set of a big action movie, getting blown away by a stunt explosion and then shrugging back to his dressing room to drink too much. LaBeouf hasn’t been too generous to the Transformers franchise, despite whatever leg up it might have given him in his career. “My hang-up with those films was that they felt irrelevant,” he said in an interview in 2018. “You come up on these stories about Easy Rider and Raging Bull and De Niro and Scorsese and Hopper, and you find value in what they do. Meanwhile, you’re chasing energon crystals.”
In Honey Boy, we get a behind-the-scenes look at this period of LaBeouf’s life as the adult Otis drinks to excess and spirals until he’s arrested. “What are you arresting me for?” he screams while a cop slams him down on the hood of his car. “You think you’re hot? ‘Cause you dooooon’t know how good I am at what I do,” he sings when he’s put in the back of the cruiser.
If LaBeouf admired Robert De Niro and Raging Bull, he didn’t follow that trajectory after his somewhat brief stint as an action star. Instead, he took his career to the brink faster than you could’ve predicted. While he was still filming the second Transformers movie in 2008, he got into a car accident that shattered his hand. The accident wasn’t his fault, but his license was suspended after he refused to take a blood alcohol test at the scene. (He continued to work on the film anyway; his cast was just written into the script.) LaBeouf’s drinking became more aggressive and pronounced; in 2007 he was arrested for trespassing after he refused to leave a Chicago Walgreens. He was banned from an LA restaurant for peeing on a wall. He chased after a man who was homeless, demanding that he give him his McDonald’s bag.
In 2014, he attempted sobriety, but in 2017 he would be arrested again for public drunkenness. A video of him on a racist rant in front of a black cop also surfaced. A year later, he apologized. “My public outbursts are failures. They’re not strategic,” he said to Esquire. “White privilege and desperation and disaster. It came from a place of self-centered delusion. It was me trying to absolve myself of guilt for getting arrested. I fucked up.”
Some of his ugliest behavior, though, was with his then-girlfriend Mia Goth. Footage of him berating her went public in 2015, and while the media framed it as a “fight,” it’s hard to view it as anything but one-sided. “I don’t want to touch a woman, I don’t want to hit a woman, but I’m being pushed,” he says in the video. “I don’t want to touch you. I don’t want to be aggressive. This is the kind of shit that makes a person abusive.” The video seems remarkably like his impersonation of his own father in Honey Boy.
Around that time, he also began venturing into performance art, which, like a lot of performance art, was incomprehensible. He released a short film that turned out to be plagiarized, and then tweeted apologies, which were themselves unattributed quotes. For the Cannes premiere of 2013’s Nymphomaniac, he wore a bag on his head with the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” In 2015, he became a meme for screaming a lot in front of a green screen. He also spent 10 hours watching all of his movies in one sitting, his own reactions livestreamed for public consumption. He started a project aptly called “#IAMSORRY,” in which people could visit him one by one in a gallery in LA, and effectively do whatever they wanted to him. (He later said he was raped by one of the visitors of the five-day project; the organizers said they stopped the incident when they realized what was happening.) “I once felt [that] to learn from tragic experience is as much happiness as one can aspire to,” he told Dazed after the performance. “I’ve since learned there is a happiness past that: being ready to die for it is only one part, being ready to live for it is the other.”
LaBeouf’s performance art focused on his struggles with fame and control, and he often seemed happy giving it all up. The movie roles he chose at the height of his spiral also seemed to echo his own loss of control. In 2016, he appeared in writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a movie about a teenage door-to-door magazine sales crew that travels the country in a van, selling bundle subscriptions and doing drugs and drinking. LaBeouf plays one of the top sellers and boyfriend of the woman in charge — he’s violent, jealous, charming, angry, sweet, and gentle, with a thin, braided rattail hanging off the back of his head. In 2017, he played John McEnroe in Borg vs McEnroe, and he channels the mercurial McEnroe to a tee. He seemed most comfortable when leaning into his rage and pain. And who else could do it better?
For the last five years, LaBeouf has been on a redemption tour of sorts. It’s strange to think that his entire career has swelled and burst in under a decade, and whether it was conscious or not, every interview and late-night show appearance has ended up being an opportunity for him to own up to being a fuckup, the refusal to be an obedient action star, the violent outbursts, the drinking, the aggression, which in the moment seemed inexplicable and unhinged.
On Jimmy Kimmel in 2014, he explained at length how he got arrested at the Broadway show Cabaret. When Kimmel suggests that he’s “gone crazy” since he last saw him, LaBeouf good-naturedly laughs and agrees. “What a night,” he says.
In 2013, he appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show and talked about getting fired from a play in New York after scrapping with Alec Baldwin, to whom he called out on air to patch things up. In 2014, he appeared on Ellen to talk more about his erratic behavior. “I got into this industry because I had this void. I’m a kid of abandonment,” he said. “I thought being good at being an actor would somehow fill that void. You just want to make a mark.”
He also knew his behavior was affecting his ability to work, the one constant in his entire life. “People I respected — dudes I wanted to work with — just looked me in the eye and said, ‘Life’s too short for this shit,’” he said in 2016, referencing how his reckless behavior was making him a liability on set. “I’m still earning my way back.”
His apologies come in countless forms, from talk shows where he laughs amicably about going to jail, to earnest tweets apologizing for screaming at a cop. “My outright disrespect for authority is problematic to say the least, and completely destructive to say the worst,” he tweeted in 2017. “This is a new low. A low I hope is a bottom.”
Now that he is sober and clearheaded, he approaches his interviews with more honesty and openness. “I’m trying to stay creative and learn from my mistakes,” LaBeouf told Esquire in 2018. “I’ve been falling forward for a long time. Most of my life. The truth is, in my desperation, I lost the plot.” Honey Boy feels like a culmination of his apology tour, his final attempt to answer why.
There’s an alternate universe where LaBeouf gets lost in his trauma and never comes back from it. He slides into irrelevance, or gets out of Hollywood completely, or tries to claw back into some form of work despite not being fully healed. The last one seems to be the template for a number of child stars, who spend the rest of their careers appearing on reality shows like Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars — Family Edition. The former would require a distaste for working your issues out in public, and the latter requires that you pretend like there aren’t significant issues to tend to. Instead, he chose a third option, one that’s rarely taken — especially by straight white men who’ve been marred by the shitty effects of masculinity, or, specifically, by the awful men in their lives who terrorized them from childhood.
Honey Boy doesn’t necessarily offer absolution — nor does LaBeouf seem to be seeking it — but it does something better and more necessary: It explains how he got here and how he’s attempting to fix it. It’s a hard lesson for any man to learn, and an even harder narrative to deliver. ●