“What do you want me to say? I’m a piece of shit,” Shia LaBeouf shrieks early in “Honey Boy.”
Really, it’s Lucas Hedges who says it, playing an analog of Shia LaBeouf in a movie written by Shia LaBeouf about Shia LaBeouf’s life. “A piece of shit” is how plenty of us would have described the onetime “Even Stevens” stooge, who is highly aware that he turned into a morality tale about childhood fame gone wrong. But Shia LaBeouf has a thing or two to tell us — and, more importantly, to tell himself — about what made him a paper-bag-wearing, scene-causing, jail-hopping agitator.
Most celebrities who draft memoirs do so in book form; LaBeouf’s is a movie. He penned “Honey Boy” while in rehab for substance abuse in 2017, channeling the demons that sent him spiraling as a kid whose felonious, abusive stage father was also a member of LaBeouf’s payroll. In a curious move that surely hovers somewhere between catharsis and flagellation, the actor plays his own dad, presented as a grizzled miscreant with stringy hair and a drug habit he can’t quite kick. The Shia character, in the world of “Honey Boy,” is named Otis Lort. An astounding Noah Jupe, the 13-year-old lad whose star first shined in “Wonder” and “A Quiet Place,” portrays Otis as a kid; Hedges takes over as Otis is nearing adulthood. Where Otis is seeking serenity and normality and all the other qualities that evade many famous tenderfoots, his combat-veteran father won’t stop chasing chaos.
“Honey Boy,” which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is split between two intermingled timelines. It opens in 2005 with Hedges’ dead-eyed Otis, then in his late teens, on the set of a blockbuster, being pulled through the air for an action sequence and then reset by production assistants to do it all over again, as if he is cattle herded through theatrical wreckage. A subsequent car crash lands him in jail, which in turn pushes him into a rehab facility replete with “hug circles” and knitting lessons. It’s there that he labels himself, furiously, a “piece of shit” ― an idea loosely implanted by Dear Old Dad ― and where he starts scripting scenes from his life in order to better process his past.
Hedges imbues in Shia ― or Otis, if you insist ― an appropriately aggro virility, lumbering around with frantic restlessness, yelling and burying his face in the neck of his shirt when stressed. This is the LaBeouf we recognize from years of damning headlines, and in juxtaposing him with such a volatile youth, the character becomes relentlessly sympathetic.
The film’s other half takes place in 1995, when Jupe’s Otis is the star of an “Even Stevens”-esque sitcom. Again, we first seem him attached to a pulley, being flung through a room and smacked with a pie. He’s a bright talent with a precocious knack for comic timing, just like LaBeouf in “Stevens.” But his father, who accompanies him to set, lives with him in a low-rent motel and often causes a stir wherever they go, is as unreliable as he is inescapable, working him to the bone one minute and hollering about child-labor laws the next. (In between, he might wave a gun at his son.) Otis lacks stability, yet he is the one floating the bills ― an impossible scenario for a youngster thrust into the public eye.
The events between 1995 and 2005 are absent from the movie, which is fine since we know all too much about how LaBeouf aged as both a performer and a person in the interim. If it weren’t autobiography, I’m not sure “Honey Boy” would be much more than another story about a dude with daddy issues. But because it’s LaBeouf, who in the last few years has finally gotten candid about his history, it surfaces an exercise in self-awareness, a therapy session that might help him understand his own psyche. It is, in the most surprising ways, an act of maturity.
It helps that the 93-minute drama is directed splendidly by Alma Har’el, whom LaBeouf sought out after producing her moving 2016 documentary “LoveTrue.” Har’el and the gifted cinematographer Natasha Braier (“The Neon Demon”) paint “Honey Boy” with a dreamy brush. Quiet moments, like when the young Otis finds himself alone or when the older Otis feels the weight of his scrambled brain, possess a gauzy profundity; loud moments, a frenzied melancholy. Even when the movie stumbles ― as in a manic-pixie-dream-girl subplot involving an older sex worker (FKA Twigs) that borders on uncomfortable ― it remains a raw insight into the mind of someone who couldn’t avoid a troubled upbringing, try as he might. Har’el’s feminine touch is just what “Honey Boy” needs to soften its brittle masculinity.
Until the movie’s close, the dual timelines collide only in spirit. Young Otis and rehabbing Otis scream into the void simultaneously, smoke cigarettes like they’re security blankets, and amble about with the sort of proverbial loneliness that haunts the rich and famous. “Honey Boy” declines to absolve Otis’ father, but it nonetheless ends with a feat of generosity. In crafting the film, LaBeouf seems to know that he can’t move on ― with his life or his renown ― without addressing all that’s plagued him.
LaBeouf, by the way, is phenomenal. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to his grown-up career. The abrasive troublemaker is at his best when playing, well, abrasive troublemakers, as in “Nymphomaniac,” “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the wonderful “American Honey.” LaBeouf’s id guides his performances, and when the camera lingers on his face, he feels one step away from exploding or melting down or maybe both. In keeping, this is less the start of a new chapter for LaBeouf and more a continuation of the work he’s been doing for the better part of a decade.
Regardless of how “Honey Boy” lands with viewers, it is a guaranteed conversation piece that deserves a place in the postmodern celebrity canon. Movies that comment on actors’ reputations are nothing new ― see: Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday,” Julia Roberts in “Ocean’s 12,” Michael Keaton in “Birdman” ― but rarely do we see someone turn their complicated saga into such curious poetry. If the world has spent 20 years wondering who exactly Shia LaBeouf is, now we know.