Honey Boy was a form of therapy for Shia LaBeouf, who wrote the screenplay and also stars in the semi-autobiographical film. At least, that's how director Alma Har'el approached it. In Honey Boy, LaBeouf plays James Lort, a former rodeo clown with alcohol use disorder, who is based on the actor's own allegedly abusive father. He also comes face-to-face with a fictional version of himself through the character Otis, played by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges. A talented, working actor, Otis goes from set to the filthy motel where he and his dad live; and, as an adult, the trauma inflicted on him in his childhood leads to anger and substance use issues. Har'el kept the duality of the narrative in mind; while subjective and deeply personal to LaBeouf, Honey Boy also had to work within the language of narrative filmmaking.
"I found a lot of freedom with Shia, coming together to tell this story. But I also felt a sense of responsibility that was very daunting to do justice with his story, and at the same time I wanted to make sure that I also tell Otis' story," Hare'l tells Bustle ahead of Honey Boy's Nov. 8 release. "And Otis is not Shia, so it was an opportunity to really take my explorations of what's documentary and what's scripted to a whole other new level."
Honey Boy is Har'el's first narrative feature film; she comes from the world of documentary filmmaking. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she shared that it was through her award-winning 2011 documentary Bombay Beach that LaBeouf first discovered her. Since then, they've become friends and collaborators, as LaBeouf also co-produced her psychodramatic documentary LoveTrue.
"In LoveTrue we had people playing with their younger selves, and entering their trauma and their memories and we had a therapist on set," Har'el explains. The director carried that over to Honey Boy, making a therapist available during the shoot. "Because Shia was really playing his own father with his younger self," she says, "it seemed like a natural progression."
As soon as she read the script for Honey Boy, which LaBeouf sent to her from a rehab facility, the director knew she wanted to make it. Though she was working on another project at the time, she says, "I thought that it had to be made, and there was an urgency on the page to tell that story."
When it came time to shoot, Har'el says that LaBeouf didn't want to be involved in production beyond doing his part as an actor. He didn't supervise or help direct Jupe or Hedges. "He was very much kind of dedicated to, and obsessed with, bringing his father to life and then inhibiting that character," Har'el explains.
"It was a very, very hard thing to do [for Shia] to have empathy and to discover the motivations of that character ... who caused him abuse," Har'el continues. "So that was a full-time job, and it was my job to actually make sure that the rest of the film gets made with all the other actors get the opportunity to bring their characters to life." (The actor has maintained over the years that he was emotionally and physically abused by his father; however, Jeffrey LaBeouf has never been charged with or convicted of abusing his son.)
In having the reins, Har'el made Honey Boy LaBeouf's — but also her own — masterpiece. "I think the challenge with every film you take is to make it your own, whether it's somebody else's story or not," she says. "If you don't really connect to the material and know why it speaks to you, and what is it about your own story that makes you understand the material, then you're probably not going to make a good film."
In this case, Har'el brings her feminist perspective to the main father/son relationship. She wanted to explore toxic masculinity — how it starts with young boys and how something needs to change in the way boys are brought up. Jupe's Otis has to act manly and mature for his father, but when spending time with their neighbor Shy Girl (FKA twigs), is free to be more tender and earnest.
"The film really documents the way this specific father has created these expectations for his son, and has created abuse that maybe [has] sent the wrong message to him about how to live in this world and what tools does he have in order to love," Har'el says. She believes that the "exploration of that cycle" will help viewers to understand "that little boys are not born toxic." Early on, "they have to perform their masculinity." It's a cycle that can be broken by self-reflection, as it is for Otis. And, it seems, for LaBeouf.
The writer/actor told Variety at the Toronto International Film Festival in September that the filmmaking experience was freeing for him. "This felt a little bit like an exorcism," LaBeouf said. He also told the magazine that he is now in a better place with his father and has no regrets about making Honey Boy. "Smooth waters never made a skilled sailor, and this sh*t just sort of helped my life big time," he added.
Honey Boy — though not directly autobiographical — gives audiences an intimate look into that life. And, as it reflects Har'el's compassion, also allows viewers to have empathy for LaBeouf and his sometimes erratic behavior, including a 2017 arrest for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, during which he was caught on video using racist language as he resisted. (Speaking to Esquire in 2018, LaBeouf addressed the arrest, saying, "What went on in Georgia was mortifying. White privilege and desperation and disaster ... It came from a place of self-centered delusion ... It was me trying to absolve myself of guilt for getting arrested.”)
With the intense therapy of Honey Boy complete, Har'el is looking forward to telling her own stories in this genre. "I'm excited [about] writing my own script, and making a film that would allow me the freedom to explore other topics that are not necessarily masculine," she laughs.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.