Warning: The following contains spoilers for Honey Boy.
Shia LaBeouf's new movie, Honey Boy is based on true events from his childhood and young adult life, but how accurate is the movie's portrayal of these events? After landing in court-ordered rehab for a public drunken outburst and evading arrest in Georgia, LaBeouf dedicated himself to his recovery and used the focused time and introspection to pen a script for a movie about his upbringing, particularly focusing on his early acting years and relationship with his father.
Gaining notoriety through the Disney Channel show Even Stevens, Shiah LaBeouf was one of the rare child stars who successfully made the transition to teen star and again to adult star, with roles in big movies like I, Robot, Constantine, Disturbia, the first three Transformers movies, Nymphomaniac, and Fury, before he started to attract attention for bizarre public behavior and drinking issues, eventually landing in court-ordered rehab.
LaBeouf says he thought was just an alcoholic, but in rehab, he was diagnosed with PTSD due to childhood trauma. He was ordered to go through exposure therapy, where he worked to vividly recall the events of his life and wrote them down, which ultimately led him to write the screenplay for Honey Boy.
On the THR Awards podcast with Scott Feinberg, LaBeouf says part of his agreement to avoid a felony charge was that the rehab facility would decide when he was complete with his program, which he says was key to him deciding to develop Honey Boy:
...I was facing a felony charge. So I thought "Ok, I'm here for a while" and got quite comfortable with the process, got quite invested in the process, and so maybe three to three and a half weeks into the process I started having this transcript of this dialogue I was having with myself in exposure therapy, and being a capitalist, being an artist, being an actor desperate to not give my craft away, started looking at this from a different angle. I wasn't sure I could ever do it, but figured "well I'm here," you know, I'm not getting sent scripts. This could be a route toward creativity again.
In Honey Boy a young boy named Otis (Lucas Hedges) has a complicated relationship with his abusive, on-again-off-again recovering addict father, James Lort (LaBeouf) as we also witness an older Otis (Lucas Hedges) entering rehab and going through exposure therapy. The names are clearly changed, but LaBeouf says the story is mostly true to life: "Everything in the film happened, it's what I didn't put in the film. There's things that happened that aren't in the film, but everything that wound up in the film is what was going on."
Over the course of the film, we see young Otis going to work as an actor during the day and working with his father James, who's also a rodeo clown, to hone his skills as an entertainer. Juggling and script memorization and recitation with push-ups and occasional verbal or physical abuse from James as he pushes Otis to be better.
It becomes clear that Otis is the breadwinner and supports his dad as they share a very complicated relationship. While James is very antagonistic to Otis, Otis still holds out hope his dad will appreciate him and treat him right, even trying to use his status as the family breadwinner to exert leverage over James, only for James to lay hands on Otis before storming out to break his sobriety.
The relationship between Otis and James is heartbreaking to witness, but that feeling is heightened even more by the meta aspect of knowing LaBeouf is the one portraying James, his own father by another name. If the act of going through exposure therapy wasn't enough, LaBeouf's artistic collaborator Honey Boy director, Alma Har'el, said she wouldn't consider directing it unless he played the role of James himself.
LaBeouf credits this choice for his ability to learn to empathize with his father and process his own PTSD: "Alma knew the only way through the pain was this way, that I wasn't going to empathize with my father as a writer, that I was only going to empathize with my father as an actor. And it's real. If I had just written it and sent it off, there'd still be a shady part in my heart that I hadn't fully excavated...it wasn't empathetic on the page."
The process of making Honey Boy didn't only bring mental and emotional healing to LaBeouf, but also to his father. They hadn't spoken for seven years, but he says his father has seen the film, saying "he knows that I really see him from the inside," and that it will certainly change their relationship going forward. LaBeouf has faced a lot of public scrutiny and ridicule in recent years before entering rehab, but Shia embraces that "I don't think you were wrong for thinking I was a dick, I think context is really important, and I think what Honey Boy does is it contextualizes who I was publicly and it plays on that."
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