“Honey Boy”

 

            Ah, fathers and sons.  It's the kind of relationship that defines both of them.  It lives on in both of their memories, long past the interactions.  The vignettes linger like old film clips.  The need for approval.  The conversations.  The debates.  The arguments.  The laughs.  A turn of phrase, a gesture, a certain tone inflection.  It's an intertwining, which sometimes feels like embracing, and sometimes like wrestling, and sometimes one morphs into the other.

            Unfortunately, Otis' relationship with his father was highly volatile, and mostly negative.  Otis at age 12 (Noah Jupe) was already a child film star.  His father, James (Shia LaBeouf), a sometimes mime and rodeo clown, was a failed actor and an ex-con with an anger management problem, and also an addict, but somehow he had custody of Otis, and acted as his transportation to the set (on the back of his motorcycle), and, in the evening back at the seedy motel, a prompter for line rehearsal.  We never really find out where Mom w9as in all of this.  She's a voice on the phone, and whenever Otis talks to her, James winds up getting angry all over again.  He's got a hair-trigger temper, that constantly simmers in the sarcastic.  Otis has certainly learned the signs, and for the most part gets along, but sometime he longs for a Dad who will actually do things like take him to baseball games.  His Mom had arranged someone from the “Big Brother” program to do that, but James was incensed at the implication that Otis needed another father figure in his life. 

            We fast-forward to Otis as an adult (Lucas Hedges), in a rehab center, trying to figure out where all his anger is coming from.  He struggles with the therapist implying that he has PTSD over his relationship with his father.  He resists dredging up the old memories, because they make him distraught, but at some intuitive level he realizes that this is where he needs the most work:  dealing with the voice of the Dad who still lives in his head.  And though Otis treasures the few memories of genuine affection, he also still agonizes over the way James struggled so much psychologically himself that he wasn't emotionally available to his son, who desperately needed some normalcy.

            We see James fight with his neighbors, storm out of an AA meeting after hurling invectives and insults at the others, berate the “Big Brother” figure, and blame everyone else for his own failures. We watch James grow marijuana beside the highway so the State would water it for him.  We witness James falling off the wagon and saying things that can't be unsaid.

            Meanwhile, the adult Otis shows signs of some of the same inner rage, the vivid sarcasm, the lashing out in sudden hatred.  Outwardly, Otis is a “success,” but inside, he's in constant turmoil.  Yes, this script is written by Shia LaBeouf, and is said to be “semi-autobiographical,” which perhaps means that it's more emotionally literal than factually verifiable.  The performances of LaBeouf and his younger self, Noah Jupe, are so intense they're difficult to watch.  It's not at all a fun movie.  But it points out a familial truth that all fathers and sons instinctively know:  we mold each other.  For better or worse.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association