Film & Television

Honey Boy’s Alma Har’el Tackles Childhood Trauma and Hollywood Sexism

In a decision that must have been tremendously challenging, not to mention cathartic, LaBeouf plays a version of his own father, an alcoholic, washed up rodeo clown who is also a convicted sex offender. Renamed James Lort, the character lives with his 12-year-old son, Otis, in a sleazy motel on the outskirts of Hollywood. Otis, a successful child actor, pays James to be his chaperone. James coaches him, defends him from directors who run overtime, gives him cigarettes as a reward, and punishes him by making him do push-ups. He is at once jealous of and proud of Otis’s accomplishments (although he insists he could have been just as successful if he’d started younger and with himself as a coach). He makes fun of the size of his son’s penis one minute and endearingly calls him “Honey Boy” the next. He resents the “Big Brother” assigned to Otis by social services and physically attacks the man after inviting him for a friendly barbecue. James loves his son (although Otis longs for some physical and emotional confirmation of that). But he is by no means fit to raise him.

“I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” he apologizes, shrugging as if his bad behavior is beyond his control. LaBeouf’s performance is disturbing and mesmerizing, especially when you bear in mind that he’s recreating some of his worst childhood memories.

As Otis, Har’el has cast two marvelous young actors. Lucas Hedges, who at 23 has already earned raves in acclaimed movies Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is strong as the grownup actor, resisting rehab’s group hugs but trying to make sense of his troubled life.

Even stronger is Noah Jupe, a young British actor who was so memorable in A Quiet Place and Wonder. More often than not, Har’el allows Jupe’s expressive face to fill the frame, conveying a sense of pensive sadness. He’s acquired unwelcome wisdom beyond his years and been denied a childhood. When his mother calls, his father refuses to speak with her. Instead, young Otis plays both their parts, relaying her words to his father and his responses back to her. Suffice it to say, the exchanges aren’t exactly amicable. They’re chilling. And Jupe captures the feelings of all three characters in that one short scene: the sense of betrayal of his mother, the rage of his father, and his own desperation caught in the middle.

“I’m growing, son,” his father tells him.

“I can see that,” Otis assures him, as always trying to maintain peace.

“No,” James snorts, “I’m growing marijuana off the Interstate.”

Har’el has directed much of Honey Boy with a dreamlike quality that makes sense both for the younger Otis’s surreal daily life and for the older Otis’s buried memories. As he’s encouraged to dig into his own background, he challenges his therapist (Laura San Giacomo, who’s terrific here), “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value was pain. And you want to take it away?” As a child, Otis experiences a love affair of sorts with an older teenager (played with sweet wonder by recording and performance artist FKA Twigs). When James walks in on them one morning, he demands, “Are you fucking my son?” “No,” she replies with a smile, “You are.”

Honey Boy is terribly sad but a beautiful film. And one that is worthy of the fine reviews it has received, as well as serious awards consideration. 

Har’el is promoting the idea that the Golden Globes and other awards competitions should have gender-specific directing categories, as they do for actors and actresses. She elaborated to Variety, “They dare to say they don’t judge by gender but that’s exactly what they do. There were so many films this year that connected with audiences and critics as well as performed at the box office, and this group is out of touch and doesn’t see any of us. Zero women script writers. Zero best films by women. Zero women directors nominated. I will not live my life as a filmmaker who plans to keep working subjected to a group of voters that doesn’t see us.”


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