Shia LeBeouf Works Through His Childhood Traumas With ‘Honey Boy’

Many young adults are left with wounds from childhoods that were less than ideal, and some turn to art as a form of therapy, but Shia LeBeouf takes healing to a whole other level with “Honey Boy,” a semi-autobiographical drama that the former child star wrote and stars in. To allow for some distance, LeBeouf put his story in the hands of director Alma Har’el. LeBeouf plays James Lort, a fictional version of his own father, while rising young actor Noah Jupe stands in for LeBeouf as Otis. Although LeBeouf has had the kind of consistent success as an adult actor that most former child stars only dream of, he has earned a reputation of being something of an eccentric in recent years. At times, LeBeouf has even been a punchline, and the man who once spent six days silently displaying himself in front of visitors a Los Angeles art gallery proves that he’s just human like the rest of us with “Honey Boy.”

“Honey Boy” starts off in 2005, when 22-year-old Otis (Lucas Hedges), now an action star, hits rock bottom with his drinking. After he drives drunk, crashes his car, and mouths off to a cop, he’s lucky to escape with only rehab. There, he is counseled by a Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo in a dramatic turn), and like all therapists, she asks him to examine his childhood, and thus begins the flashback to 1995, when 12-year-old Otis is working on a silly kids film in Los Angeles. James, a former rodeo clown, accompanies hin to set everyday, and it comes to be revealed that he is his son’s paid chaperone, meaning he receives a portion of his Otis’ wages to supervise him on set. At times, he does this job a little too well, such as when he drags the boy off set in a rage after the director tries to continue filming after curfew. Other times, James is too busy flirting and the like to give his son his full attention. 

It soon becomes apparent that consistency is what is missing from Otis’ life. His mother (Natasha Lyonne), who is only heard faintly over the phone, is away at work, and his and James’ living situation is far from luxurious. It’s not the Oakwoods for this youth talent, but a seedy motel populated by prostitutes. There, Otis forms a bond with a 20-something sex worker known only as Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), but what starts off as sweet eventually turns icky when the relationship veers into sexual terrirtory. 

While most viewers probably have no idea what it was like to be a child actor, children of divorce can easily relate to Otis as he is put between his parents, and one excellent and cringeworthy scene involves the boy performing as his mom for James after she has him relay an emotional message. Like much of the film, it serves as a reminder to how easy it is for adults to emotionally damage children when dealing with their own pain.

One can only imagine how therapeutic it was for LeBeouf to play his own father, who is so emotionally stunted that he can’t bring himself to show his son much affection. Otis is a precocious kid, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him articulate his wish that his father be more demonstrative. James may not feel comfortable holding his son’s hand, but that doesn’t mean he’s comfortable with others stepping into his role, and LeBeouf goes from zero to one hundred in one particularly tense scene in which James invites over Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.) the straight arrow whom Otis’ mother brought in to be his Big Brother, for a BBQ. Despite the older man’s bad behavior, LeBeouff does a commendable job of portraying his James, a recovering alcoholic and a Vietnam vet, as a multidimensional character. He does some of the best acting of his career here, especially when we see James pouring out his heart in an AA meeting. 

Honey Boy” opens Nov. 8 in select theaters.