Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 03, 2019 8:53 pm 
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Thirty-three-year-old Shia Laboeuf's autobiographical screenplay for the film Honey Boy (in theaters November 27, 2019) was written when he was in lock-down court ordered rehab. Its focus is on twelve-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe), a child actor, evidently a stand-in for Laboeuf, and his dysfunctional relationship with his father James Lort, an ex-rodeo clown and a felon, played by Laboeuf himself. Meanwhile these scenes alternate with ones showing the 21-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges), in the present day, in rehab. This isn't the first time Hedges has played a young man forced into rehab (or a reeducation program that his character rejects), or the first time Laboeuf himself had been in trouble or in rehab. Moreover, it is said that both Har'el and Laboeuf are adult children of alcoholics. In the film, young Otis is told he comes from a long line of them.

It's been commented that this film is like an AA share where a recovering alcoholic "tells his story," but that it lacks the "experience, strength and hope" the program calls for in such shares. It may be, some have said, cathartic for Laboeuf, but not for us. It may be that this indeed is, as Jon Frosch wrote in Hollywood Reporter, "not a self-justifying cri de coeur or a prankish exercise in narcissism, but a sensitive, sincere portrait of a child actor's dysfunctional upbringing and its devastating fallout." But it is primarily therapy, and therapy isn't art.

In the many scenes together of the boy and his dad, James wants to dominate his son, yet there is a peculiar imbalance. He is acting as paid chaperone for the boy in a shabby residence motel while the boy is starring in Disney films. "You would not be here if I were not paying you," young Otis tells the bespectacled, balding James. Note that this is not said in haughty defiance. It is a fact that makes the boy weep. He longs for a dad who's really in authority and not just an "abusive leach," as A.A. Dowd calls him. One of James's few boasts is that he is four years clean and sober. It's a happy fact for both of them. But what of the man's insistence that his young son smoke cigarettes, an activity that they share at key moments? And then James descends into drugs and alcohol again in one of Har'el's colorful music-video-style sequences. This is a grim picture of a sad but important and at this time, ever-present dad.

This movie has won awards and may well be up for more. Young Noah Jupe's performance is heartfelt and touching and yet, for all the drama in his relentless scenes with Laboeuf, admirably understated. Har'el, who was born in israel, is noted for visually striking music videos and a documentary Bombay Beach, about a peculiarly impoverished section of the southern California coast. She has skills. It's not likely that this first feature shows them to best advantage, though.

Honey Boy has a lovely title - which reminds one of the surprising, career best performance Shia Laboeuf gave three years ago as Jake, the star salesman in a group of wild traveling youths in Andrea Arnold's first US-based feature, American Honey. An unruly picture in every way, but full of astonishing performances, most of all Laboeuf's. But while Honey Boy moves some viewers with its "gritty" and "heartfelt" content, its sensitive and honest portrayal of autobiographical truth and for its message about survival, it lacks American Honey's kinetic energy and variety. It is dominated by a feeling of dreariness generated by the repetitive scenes in which young Otis tries to survive his father's browbeating and longs in vain for some positive fathering.

Honey Boy does have some scenes of remarkable tacky beauty that provide a lovely framework, but they seem extraneous, not essential to its most important moments. As Dowd says, much of the interest of this film is seeing Laboeuf "work through his feelings about his troubled childhood" to a kind of understanding symbolized by his actually playing his own troubling father. There is some memorably painful drama, most of all when the boy is forced to voice-act for both parents in a phone call from his mother when his dad refuses to take the receiver, one of the best enactments I've ever seen of what it's like to be a child caught between fighting parents. But still Laboeuf's writing and acting can't keep the father from seeming repetitious. The content isn't truly strengthened by the father-son scenes alternating with the framing ones of the 21-year-old Otis that don't altogether come together or convince.

The boy is great, and so are some secondary characters, notably singer FKA Twigs as his platonic but still highly inappropriate girlfriend. In so many of his early roles Hedges shone, and they included three Oscar-nominated pictures; but recently he has been a disappointment. Shia Laboeuf's life has been tempestuous and this drama helps us see why. He is a talented actor and let's hope he's on a better path in both art and life now.

Honey Boy, 93 mins., debuted art Sundance, playing in at least 16 other international festivals. Limited US release Nov. 8, wider Nov. 27. Metascore: 72%.

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