There are times when a film comes along, and I’m utterly baffled by it. I can be baffled by the fact that someone greenlit such a film, or baffled it took so long to do that, because the result was so great. Then there are films that generally leave me in a haze of uncertainty, not knowing whether I thought it was good or not, simply occupying the ever-infuriating ‘could be better, could be worse’ space.
At the risk of decapitating someone with the cards I have now thrown firmly onto the table; let me back up a bit.
Honey Boy is a film that comes to us from Shia Leboeuf, you remember that guy who turned up at Cannes with a paper bag on his head, probably to save himself watching any of the dross that occupies festivals, and who I really enjoyed in last year’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. It is perhaps the most public therapy session the world has ever known; basing itself of Shia’s life and relationship with his father.
While it also deals with issues of addiction and child fame, the relationship with his father is at the root of the entire film, used as a device to rationalise his future misgivings, not something new, but certainly something worth exploring.
The biggest problem I have with the film is one I mentioned earlier: it is practically a public therapy session for Shia to work on his daddy issues, and fair enough if that were to make for an interesting narrative, and this may seem harsh, but it feels like a film that Shia made not for an audience, but for himself, and as a result, it feels self-absorbed and a little pretentious.
I’m really glad for the guy that he’s worked on his issues, it’s fantastic that he’s in a much better place now, but I just don’t think it made for a satisfying film. Sure, it looks nice, and is very well acted, but if anything that just makes it worse; showing us the potential it had if it weren’t being dragged down by a writer with issues to deal with.
The feel of it just being Shia’s therapy session is driven home somewhat forcefully by the actor playing his own father (in a way, the characters have different names, but it is a version of his father) maybe he wanted to work out his anger on his father, but it does make for a very uncomfortable tone. It’s like watching a homeless man yell incoherently on the street; you feel sorry for him and you want to help him, but he’s also very annoying and intimidating and you’re just trying to go about your life.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Honey Boy because I feel it’s a missed opportunity. As I say, it had all the tools in the world to be outstanding, the acting and cinematography are fantastic, Shia himself gives a phenomenal performance, but I just think it’s let down by its screenplay and general mixed tone.
The plot will feel like it’s going somewhere and then suddenly swerve into a non-sequitur fantasy or dream section which fits about as well as a black-and-white minstrel show in Uganda; generally giving the film a feel of a writer who’s never written anything, but wants to get all of his ideas into his script, without grasping the nuances that comes with forming a cinematic structure.
Maybe I’m wrong in my assumption that Mr LaBeouf hasn’t written a script before and to tell you the truth, the film would work perfectly well with just the timeline hopping plot, switching between adult Otis (Shia, in all but name) and child Otis, but in the middle we have strange snatches of dream and fantasy that go nowhere and add nothing. I understand it’s a personal tale for the writer, but it could have really done with a more experienced head to help guide him through the scripting process.
Hidden behind these gripes though, there are signs of promise, as I say Shia himself gives a great performance, maybe even overshadowed by the actor playing him-but-not-really Noah Jupe, and given my propensity for wanting to shove forks in my eyes rather than watch some children try and act, please understand how good he must be for me to mention him; he’s fantastic in this film, overshadowing most if not all the adult actors in the film, but then again I also liked him in Le Mans ’66 last year, so obviously he has something going for him.
The direction and cinematography also warrant a mention here; as there is some lovely work done with framing and colour grading, as well as assembling the film, which as I say has a messy script, into something that looks great, for which I applaud the director (Alma Har’el). With a polished script, she might have helmed one of the films of the year, but as it stands her top notch direction only serves to make a self-indulgent film feel pretentious.
As I said at the start of the review; I don’t really know what to feel about Honey Boy you might have read the previous paragraphs and think I hated it, and I didn’t, I was engaged in the narrative, when it wasn’t going off the rails, and I really enjoyed the performances. But I didn’t enjoy it either, I think it lacked the cutting-edge of storytelling that might have tipped it over into greatness. Truthfully, this kind of film is my least favourite to review as it’s the equivalent of waving my hand in the air going ‘meh’ at you, while trying to think of ways to keep you interested in reading on.
I’m glad LaBeouf is in a better place, and I think he’s a great actor, his first film as a writer leaves me feeling somewhat flat though. By no means bad, but could have done with a co-writer.