Creepy clowns are in this fall. Tourists are mobbing a stairway in the Bronx to recreate Joker's "dance of freedom," and Pennywise is still among the most popular Halloween costumes. If you want know the most realistically scary clown in theaters this year, however, look to Honey Boy's James Lort, the violent, drug-addicted sex offender rodeo clown played by Shia LaBeouf as a fictionalized version of his real father.
LaBeouf wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay for Honey Boy in court-mandated rehab. As a cinematic therapy session, it's likely the most artistically valuable project with which he's ever been involved. The former child actor is certainly easy to dislike, from the Dan Clowes plagiarism controversy to his numerous drunken brawls and offensive outbursts. LaBeouf acknowledges he's been an awful person, and while it's premature to say whether Honey Boy signals a true mature "comeback," it's nonetheless fascinating as an exploration of why he has behaved so poorly. More importantly, even if you know or care nothing about the actor/performance artist, Honey Boy works universally as an examination of how cycles of abuse perpetuate.
LaBeouf's fictionalized stand-in character, Otis Lort, is played by Lucas Hedges as an adult and by Noah Jupe as a child. The film's nonlinear structure jumps back and forth between 1995, where the young Otis is paying his father to supervise him on the set of an Even Stevens-esque sitcom, and 2005, where Otis, now the star of a Transformers-style action blockbuster, is in rehab following a DUI. Both actors are great, and both timelines are interesting to watch for different reasons.
The childhood scenes are the most immediately powerful, and often painful to watch. This is where we get most of LaBeouf's performance as James, who has enough experience with performing to get into the role of "stage dad" but is so grossly hurtful to his son and everyone else that he fails simply as a father. In the rehab scenes, we see how James' worse traits rubbed off on Otis, as well as how his own too-smart-for-his-own-good actor pretentiousness gets in the way of him being able to help himself.
When dealing with an autobiographical screenplay, there's an understandable inclination to view subject as auteur, but while he's the writer and co-star, LaBeouf didn't direct Honey Boy. That credit goes to Alma Har'el, an experimental documentarian bringing her sense of stylistic fluidity to her narrative debut. You can compare this to another Sundance 2019 hit, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, where an autobiographical story by the film's star Jimmie Fails was directed by his childhood friend Joe Talbot. In both cases, the directors have a connection to their writer-subjects but obvious differences in perspective: Talbot is white while Fails is black, and Har'el is a woman while LaBeouf is a man.
In fact, women take up much of the behind-the-scenes roles on Honey Boy: Natasha Brier did the cinematography, Tatiana van Sauter did the set decoration, Natalie O'Brien designed the costumes, Monica Salazar co-edited the film. Supposedly if LaBeouf had it his way, the set would have been all women aside from the actors, finding other men triggering to work with as a result of his father's abuse. This extreme presence behind the scenes contrasts with the general absence of women on-screen: The most prominent female character, a neighbor played by FKA Twigs, doesn't even have a name (the credits list her character as "Shy Girl"), while Otis' busy mom is only barely audible in a phone call.
Honey Boy works as a feminist film of sorts in the same way Martin Scorsese described Taxi Driver as his "feminist" film: not because of how it addresses women's issues, but because of how it confronts the problem of toxic masculinity. One assumes audiences are far more likely to get the point that the child-beating racist rapist James Lort is not someone to emulate than some were with the semi-sympathetic Travis Bickle. In Otis Lort's story, we see how victims can emulate their abusers, but also the hope that there is a way out of the cycle.
Directed by Alma Har'el from a script by Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy stars Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf and FKA Twigs. It opens Friday in limited release. and will expand to more theaters over the following weeks.