In 2019, Israeli-American director, Alma Har'el took home the Director's Guild of America Award for First Time Feature Film for Honey Boy, a project she created alongside Hollywood veteran, Shia LaBeouf. While it underperformed at the box office, Honey Boy remains one of 2019's most highly praised films due to its direction, writing, and performances. What sets Honey Boy apart from the average American drama film is that it dares to conquer some of the most taboo topics in media, abuse and addiction in a manner we've never seen before: through the eyes of a child star.
Honey Boy follows the story of Otis Lort, an actor attending rehab for his alcoholism. While in treatment, he undergoes exposure therapy and is forced to relive his traumatic past as a child actor, living with his manic, abusive father, James. The script was written by Shia Labeouf, and the movie acts as a semi-autobiography for him, he even stars as James Lort. While it can be extremely difficult to witness a young child being mistreated as well as a jaded adult confront his demons, Alma Har'el approaches the subject in a way that is complex, considerate, and deeply human. While the writing might be from the perspective of Shia LaBeouf, it's the director that makes the story feel so universal, whether you've been in a similar situation or not.
In the past, Hollywood has not been afraid to explore the subject of drug addiction and alcoholism. Movies like Trainspotting, Requiem For A Dream, Leaving Las Vegas, and many more have covered the raucous, nauseating, unhinged part of addiction. The late night binges, the insane hallucinations and the unbearable withdrawal symptoms. But it's rare that you find a movie covering the long term effects of recovery, the constant fear of falling off the wagon, the alternative vices replacing the old ones. In Honey Boy, the focus isn't about how addiction affects James, it's about how it affects his son, and it really highlights just how difficult alcoholism can be not just for the addict but for those close to them. It's a rare side of addiction that we never seem to witness on the big screen, and perhaps the rarity is what makes it so rewarding. All of the characters in Honey Boy tend to be much more complicated than the average movie about abuse. James Lort is an irresponsible, aggressive, total mess of a person but there is still a lot of humanity in Shia LaBeouf's performance. He's a terrible yet sympathetic character, and the same goes for his son. He can barely hold down a job and his family has been forced to stay at a motel, living off the income from his son's acting career. It's an interesting twist on a story of abuse we've heard before. For Otis, it's a story about feeling alone in a room full of people, or in this case, a film set.
I find it difficult to choose my favorite performance in Honey Boy because you can tell just how much each actor cares about their role. Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges give amazing performances that seldom get talked about in conversations about acting. But of course, no performance can be entirety attributed to the actors alone, there is usually quite a bit of guidance from the director, and in that regard, Alma Har'el deserves a lot more credit. Shia LaBeouf is easily one of the most divisive and eccentric people in Hollywood, but the amount of effort he put into this project will make you respect him. In terms of technical aspects, the cinematography by Natasha Braier is also a standout, never forget how much shot composition can affect the tone of a film.
What makes Honey Boy such an interesting story is how much it's rooted in reality. In recent years, various child stars have come forward about their experiences with abuse during their time as young actors. Corey Feldman, Drew Barrymore, Jennette McCurdy, and many others have a plethora of stories about being mistreated at home and in the industry from a very young age. While this isn't a relatable point of view for a good 99% of the population, it sheds light on an important issue. Even if you weren't a child star, I'm sure anyone who had to deal with physical or verbal abuse can relate in some capacity to Otis' story. Even though Shia LaBeouf has complicated feelings about the film, it has probably made at least one kid feel a little less alone in the world.
Honey Boy is a story of pain, a common pain in an uncommon situation, and that's what makes the film so unique. It's a difficult watch, but a rewarding one, a story you never truly forget. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that I can't wait to see what Alma Har'el and company do next.