Sundance 2019: Honey Boy

Noah Jupe appears in Honey Boy by Alma Har'el, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Natasha Braier.

Premiering at Sundance, Honey Boy is an extremely personal film for actor-screenwriter Shia LaBeouf in telling a fictionalized version of his life story.

Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges portray Otis Lort a decade apart at 12 and 22 years old, respectively.  This leads to back and forth storytelling that takes place in 1995 and 2005.  When we first meet Otis, he’s doing stunt work on a film that is likely a stand-in for the first Transformers film.  It’s not until his third arrest for a drunken altercation with police that the film flashes back a decade earlier to life with his dad.

When one sees what Otis had to experience with his father James (Shia LaBeouf), one can’t help but feel for the actor in real life.  James is a former clown and felon.  One can easily deduce that he wasn’t a good father.  We can see this through how he treats young Otis.  This treatment affects Otis will into the future with issues of his own.  Would he have the same issues if his dad didn’t treat him in such a way?  It is honestly hard to say.

The performances in this film are top-notch.  We get a nice mix of Hedges and Noah but with a bigger focus on the younger character.  What’s most astonishing is the performance we get from LaBeouf.  I’m not one to mince words but a director can make a big difference for an actor.  This is exactly what happened in Shia’s instance when it comes to his performance in Honey Boy.  Alma Ha’rel directs him in a way that–not to put things lightly–Michael Bay never could.  This is a role that could arguably see the actor nominated for awards.

Alma Ha’rel couldn’t have asked for a better feature narrative debut.  It’s such a beautiful film.  One that every child of an alcoholic parent could likely relate to–even if they weren’t one of the stars of Even Stevens or the Transformers movies.  That’s the thing about child stars of the 1990s or early 2000s.  Social media wasn’t around like it is today so we had no clue of what their home life was like.  It’s clear now–even in fictionalized form–that Shia did not have it easy while growing up.

Through its back and forth almost documentary-esque storytelling, Honey Boy is able to achieve what Mid90s couldn’t do.  Both films are very different in their own right but LaBeouf’s script for Honey Boy feels more like a therapy session.  One of the things I learned in my sketch and screenwriting classes is to write what you know.  Shia LaBeouf does exactly that.  LaBeouf doesn’t just write the script for the film but he also gives himself a role that leads to the performance of his life.

If Honey Boy is able to prove anything, it is that therapy can lead to some beautiful cinema even if we do feel empathetic feelings for the subject at hand.

DIRECTOR:  Alma Ha’rel
SCREENWRITER:  Shia LaBeouf
CAST:  Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Natasha Lyonne, Martin Starr, Byron Bowers, Clifton Collins Jr., Maika Monroe, with Laura San Giacomo and FKA twigs

Honey Boy held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.