“Shia LaBeouf left a bomb at Whole Foods,” dishes one character to another in the recently released third season of Netflix’s Big Mouth. “I bet it’s, like, an art project,” comes the eye-rolling reply. Such were the spectacles of eccentricity, pretension, and even violence conjured by the Transformers star in the past decade-and-a-half—every last one breathlessly reported by the media—that the 33-year-old actor, like many other former child stars, is now arguably more famous for his off-screen antics than his on-camera work. That context can make the semi-autobiographical Honey Boy, which LaBeouf wrote in court-ordered rehab and stars in as a version of his own bullying father (the names are changed to protect the innocent and otherwise), sound self-pitying and self-exculpatory. But LaBeouf is so revelatory as both writer and actor that the film defies cynicism about its second purpose as celebrity image management. It just makes you excited about the work.
There is absolutely an alternate universe where Honey Boy—which borrows from the sometimes tender, mostly emasculating nickname that LaBeouf’s James calls his preteen son—isn’t an achievement on multiple fronts. In those other worlds, the drama, which marks director Alma Har’el’s debut narrative feature, is perhaps less poignant as a portrait of a father-son relationship turned inside out by showbiz dynamics. Or it might be less haunting as an exploration of how a parent’s resentment of his own child, turbocharged by his own need for admiration, can curdle into abuse. Or it may feature a less virtuosic turn by its lead actor, whose obvious showiness (beer gut, thinning hair, motormouth) never gets in the way of the subtleties of his performance. LaBeouf’s 12-year-old proxy, Otis (a quietly naturalistic Noah Jupe), can’t take his eyes off his pacing, charging, seething father, and it’s clear that the older actor has been studying his actual dad all his life. Luckily, in our universe, Honey Boy is an uncommonly insightful character study, as thematically jagged as it is visually inventive.
Early in the film’s production, LaBeouf got his dad to hand over his life rights by lying that the paternal figure would be played by Mel Gibson. Were it not for Gibson’s age (and even more disturbing off-screen behavior), it would have been astute casting. An ex-rodeo clown who isn’t as irresistibly charming as he’s convinced he is, James has tamed his alcoholism but not his addiction to rage. He and his son Otis’ days are organized by the boy’s schedule on set, but most of their scenes together take place at the cramped, dumpy motel room they call home, where James constantly looks for foibles to criticize, while the precocious and poised Otis awaits the inevitable attacks, which are often, but not always, verbal. (Just outside their door sit a cluster of sex workers waiting for customers, including a gentle but inappropriately intimate prostitute played by singer FKA Twigs.) James routinely mocks his son for his profession (“You lie for a living”) and supposed lack of manliness, going so far as to nitpick the inadequate volume of the boy’s piss hitting the toilet water. (He blames Otis’ mother for the boy’s “Jew rivulets.”) But James’ encouragements to his son to toughen up are a ruse: As soon as the boy stands up for himself, he gets struck down.
Dysfunctional relationships between child stars and their parents are a cliché for a reason, but Honey Boy’s behind-the-scenes look at young stardom is fascinating not for headline-making blowups but its day-to-day grime. With James pocketing Otis’ per diems, the boy steals food from the set when everyone else has gone home. On the days when his dad fails to pick him up, he lies to crew members to cover up for him. Nights are spent memorizing lines for productions that invariably look cheesy at best. Most of the time, James is good at sticking to a routine, but he’s also enough of a narcissist to think of parenting as a zero-sum game, in which anything he gives Otis takes something essential away from him. LaBeouf’s script skillfully builds the feeling of mutual entrapment between father and son, and while he gifts himself the more explosive part, he takes care to not overpower his younger co-star—an instance of the generosity he claims he wasn’t shown as a child actor. The film gradually reveals the tragedies and misdeeds that have shaped James’ life, and the domineering blankness with which LaBeouf clouds his face early in the film gives way to the realization that his character is perpetually tamping down his own overwhelming feelings of shame and jealousy.
The only moments we see James let down his guard are at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. An older Otis (Lucas Hedges), who lands in rehab after a drunk-driving accident, grouses that even the confessions that his dad made at AA weren’t the full truth, but it hardly matters: Both father and son are caught in cycles of familial and substance abuse much bigger than either of them. (In an unnecessary bit of metafiction, we see twentysomething Otis begin writing the screenplay that would become Honey Boy, as the young man ostensibly living his dream wonders how he ended up suffering from PTSD.) When a sober Otis finally visits his father, LaBeouf denies his stand-in, and the audience, closure, but his labor of candor should be enough.