When Shia LaBeouf was ordered by a judge to write about the childhood trauma that seeded a fiery transition to adulthood punctuated by angry outbursts, car crashes, and curious creative choices that transformed him from golden boy to pariah, his decision to bare his pain in the screenplay format he was so familiar with turned out to be a life changing experience.
Who could have imagined several years later that the result, Honey Boy, would become an early Sundance buzz title that brought LaBeouf a standing ovation after its Friday premiere? Or that it might have the power to move audiences — and industry decision makers — to reconsider LaBeouf’s place in the Hollywood ecosystem. It is a well told story that provides a clear understanding of the painful upbringing that fueled LaBeouf’s demons as he transitioned to adulthood. Honey Boy is at the same time a story that will feel familiar to many who, like LaBeouf, grew up the child of an alcoholic father, with all of the inherent shame, self-loathing and insecurity that comes with it. The film is an acquisitions title and if LaBeouf was regarded as a liability because he became so unpredictable, he will be the key selling tool for the distributor that acquires and releases the film.
“There are people who are as good at acting as Shia, but there aren’t any who are better than him,” said Alma Har’el, the Israeli-born director who also grew up the child of an alcoholic father and had to find her way through adversity of her own. She spoke to Deadline on the eve of the film’s Friday premiere. It is her first narrative film as a director.
LaBeouf’s struggles can be traced to the substance abusing, alcoholic, felon dad whom the youth paid to chaperone him to acting jobs because he needed a guardian and was too young to drive. Honey Boy is a fictionalized look at LaBeouf’s childhood at the time he was beginning to find success on the Disney Channel series Even Stevens, before he started a journey that led him to become Hollywood’s next hot young star in the films Holes and Transformers.
LaBeouf not only scripted the drama that fictionalizes his dysfunctional upbringing, he plays James Lort, a character clearly based on Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf, the father who shepherded young Shia by motorcycle from sound stages to the seedy motel they called home. The youth’s mother is not seen in the movie, and doesn’t seem to have been a nurturing influence during the period the movie takes place. Essentially an employee paid a monthly stipend by his son, LaBeouf abused his position as father and took it out on the child. After suffering an abusive upbringing himself, the father developed a sense of toxic masculinity as a protection mechanism, and warped his son’s childhood by passing all of it onto the youth.
“I watched Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe [who play the young actor at different ages] and how these young men are growing into terrific young actors themselves,” Har’el said. “They came in with a much better support system than Shia did when he went into that world. I don’t even know how Shia survived it. To me, he’s a miracle.”
The filmmaker first met LaBeouf when he stumbled on her documentary debut, Bombay Beach. This was at a time when his personal struggles were beginning to show through. He bonded totally with Har’el and proved capable of extreme acts of kindness.
“When we met, we found out that both of our fathers were alcoholics,” Har’el said. “I feel like all children of alcoholics are my brothers and sisters, and I had to go through a big period of recovery myself. I really connected with him and we felt like we should work together. We did a music video that also dealt with the circle and cycle of pain, of causing pain to others, people you love. And being locked in that cycle. When I tried to get my second movie off the ground, I couldn’t get financing. You know how hard it is, especially for women directors. So he stepped in and financed my film. He literally sent me a check in the mail. It came on New Year’s Eve and while I’m not going to say how much, I will say I don’t ever expect to get a check that large in the mail, again.”
Soon, it was her turn to help LaBeouf, when he sent her a biographical screenplay. The young man who was touted as a potential Tom Cruise when he starred for Spielberg in three Transformers films and an Indiana Jones sequel, instead was beginning to look more like the next Jan Michael Vincent, a cautionary tale about a young man unable to handle stardom. After crashing a car and being arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct involving a dispute with police (not the first time all this happened), LaBeouf was diagnosed with PTSD and ordered to attend anger management seminars.
“I was so blown away when he sent it to me from rehab, in realizing how everything he did led to where he was,” Har’el said. “When he went to rehab, he didn’t write this to be a film. He went to rehab because he was court ordered to, and there he was literally court ordered to write his memories as part of his therapy, a lot of what you see in the film. He wrote it in the form of a script, instead of just writing his memories, and he sent it to me from rehab. It was called Stamen, which is the male fertilizing organ of the flower. It really dealt with masculinity and the expectations of masculinity that our parents passed, along with generation pain.
Har’el said Stamen only dealt with the young actor named Otis in the film, and his love/hate relationship with his abusive employee/father. She suggested they take it further and Har’el worked with LaBeouf to factor in the aftermath. Eventually, they had a movie that drew financing from Daniela Taplin Lundberg, with Anita Gou, Automatik’s Bryan Kavanaugh-Jones and Delirio Films’ Christopher Leggett as producers.
“We work shopped it and he rewrote it over months,” she said. It is surprising to see that a standout Disney Channel star with a bright future could live in such a seedy, ramshackle motel room. But that was LaBeouf’s reality as the youth paid the bills and was unsure of his future in a fickle Hollywood that mints child stars and usually discards them.
“When he was on Even Stevens, he was living the reality you see in the film,” she said. “They were worried that the money was going to run out. They didn’t know he was going to be in Transformers. They were very poor and just living in a motel and seeing where this is going. His mom wanted to keep her job. They were struggling and she didn’t want to throw everything into this and imagine he was going to become a big Hollywood star. That discussion is in the film. His father was being paid by him, a fee every month to chaperone him.
“I don’t know how much Shia wants to share,” she said. “This movie deals with a certain moment in time. There’s a lot that happened after, and a lot of trauma that Shia endured, later on. It doesn’t tell the story of what was happening with his mother. It’s really about a period where he felt he was living a life without a woman. He was dealing with a certain kind of masculinity and hurt. His father was in the army, he put a lot of emphasis on certain qualities of what a man is. There’s a whole other story to Shia’s trauma that isn’t told in the movie. I know that he will keep writing, because the story of his life doesn’t end here.”
What is surprising is how sympathetically LaBeouf scripted the character based on his father. It is made clear, for instance, that the father had very little positive reinforcement during his own child, and developed his own theories of hardness and masculinity as self-protection devices.
“Shia’s grandmother fell off a window and nobody knows how she died, whether she was pushed, or she fell,” Har’el said. “So his father didn’t have a mother. Then he went to Vietnam, became addicted to heroin. Tried to kick it. Became a rodeo clown. Was very passionate and still is about clowning, but then he became a felon, went to jail for three years and then was hired by Shia to take care of him. When you see Shia play his father…the genius of Shia is how he embodies the things he inherited. Not many people can play that kind of character, with that level of anger.
Still, even though the father can be physically and verbally abusive, there is no Mommie Dearest vibe in the film. As bad as the father’s behavior becomes, it is clear he loves his son, and the youth loves him back.
“That is the recovery part, and that’s why Shia made this film,” she said. “To recover, to understand and have empathy for his father, which he developed by playing the part. I think he’s a different man now, having developed that empathy for that man, and recovering the relationship they had, too, in order to make the film. That’s the recovery part. Then Lucas Hedges came in and really channeled something that is so accurate and at the same time…not an impression, but a performance, its own thing that really brought that character to life.”
I suggest that Honey Boy is a potentially important film for the career of LaBeouf. After I saw it, I watched Borg Vs. McEnroe, and was struck by how effective LaBeouf was in channeling the anger and intensity exhibited by McEnroe that was such a contrast to the icy calm of Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon, as McEnroe dealt with the pressure of trying to be perfect in his father’s eyes.
Any child of an alcoholic can tell you that bad memories, self loathing and insecurity are fuel for accomplishment, but it is terribly hard to feel happy. Watching how LaBeouf grew to understand his issues through writing such a thoughtful script made me believe he has a real chance to break that cycle when he becomes a father himself.
To that end, Har’el showed me a tattoo that she just got on her wrist after she wrapped Honey Boy. It is a symbol of a snake, eating itself.
“It’s a sign, the idea that you eat your own pain, and use it to create your own material, to create gold,” she said. “But you’ve got to digest it, in order to heal, to get free. This movie, these messages, come from my heart to the children of alcoholics. It is what all of us children of alcoholics have to say, that it runs in the family, and it has to stop. All that is in the film, too. That’s why I hope people see it. It’s bigger than Shia’s story. This is societal, as we try to understand and deal with things like masculinity, and racism, how women are treated. All those discussions, we have to start them at home. That is really what this film is about.”