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‘Honey Boy’: Shia LaBeouf smartly recalls his own youth (sort of)

Writing the unflinchingly honest screenplay and playing a fictionalized version of his father, the actor depicts the ordeals of being a talented child with an abusive dad.

Shia LaBeouf plays James, an abusive narcissist based on the actor’s real-life father, in “Honey Boy.:”
Amazon Studios

That’s messed up.

A verbally and physically abusive, drug-addicted, narcissistic and altogether horrible father who is financially dependent on his child actor son?

That’s messed up.

The real-life child actor growing up to write a movie about his relationship with the aforementioned awful dad — and actually playing the father?

That’s messed up.

Or maybe it’s an incredibly brave and therapeutic exercise in cathartic cinema — a movie about a famously troubled movie star who was almost doomed from childhood to have a screwed-up adulthood.

If your head is spinning from all that, imagine how you’ll feel watching Shia LeBeouf’s intense, flashy, bouncing-off-the-walls performance as a fictionalized version of his own father in the raw and riveting psychodrama “Honey Boy.”

Working from a sharp and unflinchingly honest screenplay by LaBeouf, director Alma Har’el delivers a smart and knowing inside slice of show business life that also serves as a harrowing cautionary tale about abuse and about encouraging your children to become professional entertainers when they’d most likely be better off having, you know, an actual childhood.

Lucas Hedges, who has built much of his promising career playing troubled young men (“Boy Erased,” “Ben Is Back,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Three Billboards…”), turns in another fine performance as a famous actor named Otis who stars in big-budget films in between stints in rehab. In other words, he’s playing Shia LaBeouf.

As part of his court-ordered therapy, Otis begins to write a script based on his childhood. (As part of HIS court-ordered therapy, LaBeouf wrote the screenplay for this movie.) This leads to the flashback sequences that make up the bulk of the movie, with Noah Jupe (Christian Bale’s son in “Ford v Ferrari”) as the 12-year-old Otis, and LaBeouf as Otis’ father James, a failed rodeo clown and ex-convict who is living with Otis in a motel while Otis shoots a television show. (Imagine what a wreck Otis’ mom must be if James is the one watching the kid all summer.)

James is an annoying necessity on set, and an overbearing, manic, motor-mouthed boor at the motel, where he’s constantly scuffling with the neighbors and forever riding Otis to learn his lines, do the laundry, listen to his father’s show business “wisdom” and show some appreciation for all the sacrifices James has made for Otis.

Noah Jupe is heartbreakingly effective as the sweet and sensitive Otis. (It’s particularly sad because we know the kid is going to grow up to be an absolute bleep. This is maybe the last year of his innocence.) Otis tiptoes around his hot-headed father as if he’s trapped in a cage with a tiger who could pounce at any moment. (He’s not wrong.)

LaBeouf put on a few pounds, pushed back his hairline and wears a sweat-soaked bandana and crooked, oversized glasses — just like his real father. As obnoxious and even monstrous as James can be, we feel at least some degree of empathy for this man. He’s sick. He’s an addict. He loves his son, but he doesn’t know HOW to love him.

“Honey Boy” is a fascinating psychological deep dive. And it’s really messed up.