By James Powers
Lately, one doesn’t have to look far to find a lot of movies that are deeply concerned with the female experience, but nonetheless directed by men. Assassination Nation, Unsane, Widows, Suspiria, Tully and the upcoming Bombshell, to name just a few. Not that there’s anything wrong with male directors making films about female protagonists – “write what you know” has always struck me as very limiting advice. If nothing else, it’s refreshing that Hollywood is finally making a concerted effort to do better at the Bechdel test, even if they still generally suck at putting women behind the camera.
In the midst of this trend, a movie like Honey Boy comes a bit out of nowhere. Its premise is almost guaranteed to provoke eye-rolls: both written by and co-starring Shia LaBeouf, it tells the mostly-autobiographical story of a hugely successful young actor wrestling with the fallout of an abusive upbringing at the hands of his arrogant ex-con of a father. Although names have been changed, it’s no secret that LaBeouf is telling his own story here, presumably trying to explain away his history of dysfunctional behavior by chalking it up to daddy issues. The whole idea screams toxic masculinity, narcissism, calculated image management… and in some alternate universe the final product would boil down to exactly that.
But in this universe, Honey Boy is actually one of the most affecting films I’ve seen this year. A lot can be said for its performances – especially its central trio of LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges and a phenomenal then-12-year-old Noah Jupe. And the richness of both its visuals and sound give it a vivid sense of intimacy that’s wholly its own. You could almost take a bite out of the film and feel it stick to the roof of your mouth like those PBJs you lived on as a child. But I think there are two unique factors that really make Honey Boy work, that save it from being merely self-indulgent and instead propel it into something bittersweetly redemptive.
First is the fact that, although LaBeouf may indeed be just as self-obsessed as the A-lister stereotype, his brand of earnest spazziness won’t permit him to do the whole confessional memoir thing the same way anyone else would. Although he plays a major role in the film, that role isn’t of himself, but rather of his embattled father. Choosing to play the antagonist of your own story is a very weird move – a very Shia LaBeouf one. And that choice, despite not being LaBeouf’s original intent, drastically colors the film’s ultimate purpose.
Had LaBeouf remained solely the screenwriter, or worse played himself, the movie probably would have turned out as just another example of celebrity auto-mythologizing – exactly the kind of exercise in narcissism that some critics (wrongly) accuse it of being. Or at best, it would have been a piece of expensive therapy for LaBeouf, allowing him to reckon with his own demons without necessarily doing much for audiences at large.
By instead choosing to occupy the uncanny valley of his father’s psyche – so close and yet so far from his own – LaBeouf expands the emotional map of Honey Boy far beyond himself. Although the experience of a child star is an undeniably weird and often fraught one, that experience is not ultimately the point of the film. It’s not the origin story of a movie star; it is instead the story of a father and son.
The second big thing Honey Boy has in its favor is the woman behind the camera. Israeli-American director Alma Har’el started her career largely with commercials and music videos, and like many directors who began in those sorts of gigs (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Tarsem Singh), she has always had a flair for experimentation and bold visuals. She first put herself on the map by applying that approach to the documentary format with 2011’s Bombay Beach, which won the top prize in that category at the Tribeca Film Festival.
And it seems that the epidemic of damaged men – in particular damaged fathers – is an issue particularly close to her heart. The child of a fractious marriage, Har’el would often go to the movies to meet up with her father, whose alcoholism got him kicked out of the house on multiple occasions. Bombay Beach, like Honey Boy, follows a trio of bruised, dysfunctional males; and similarly, her 2016 follow-up Love True, while more of an ensemble piece that surveys different types of relationships, takes the connection between father and child as one of its main through-lines.
So Honey Boy, despite being Har’el’s first venture into narrative film, progresses pretty naturally from her previous work. But along with having a strong thematic interest in wounded masculine hearts, she is also a fiercely outspoken advocate for women filmmakers. She recently blasted the Golden Globes for their conspicuous failure to nominate any female directors or screenwriters this year. An understandable frustration, as Honey Boy is far from the only notable snub: Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers were all similarly passed over. But she also puts her money where her mouth is, as the founder of a nonprofit that provides a network for women filmmakers and advocates for their work in advertising and cinema.
Superficially, Har’el comes across as the quintessential SJW-type artiste – not someone you would expect to be a close collaborator with the star of Transformers. Yet it happened. Har’el and Labeouf first met when he starred in a music video she directed for indie icons Sigur Rós, and the two quickly became friends. He served as an executive producer on Love True, and eventually sent her a draft for Honey Boy while in court-mandated rehab. Upon reading the script, Har’el decided that “it definitely just felt like the most urgent thing I had to do.” Speculation here, but I imagine that she identified strongly with the script’s portrayal of a child who simultaneously resents and adores the man who made him.
It’s no secret that masculine identity is in some kind of crisis today. That, at least, is one thing that people on both sides of the culture wars seem to agree on, although their proposed solutions to the problem are hilariously divergent. A new father with a little boy today has many different voices screaming in his ear: some may say that growing that boy into a man means plying him with footballs and power tools and even guns, while others insist that anything resembling traditional masculinity is a poison that must be kept far away from him.
Honey Boy isn’t interested in such prescriptions, but it is deeply interested in the problem they claim to solve. I find it very consoling that an A-list movie star and a quintessentially woke indie filmmaker, a man and a woman, both decided that it was worth exploring from a position of empathy, rather than claiming that they know how to fix it. “Toxic masculinity,” whatever you may take that to mean, is a wound that won’t be healed by either Band-Aids or amputation. Before any wound can be healed, it must first be carefully probed and cleaned. Honey Boy makes me a little more hopeful that, on a cultural level, we haven’t entirely forgotten how to do that yet.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.