Being a child actor is an act of survival.
This survival is not an impossible act- Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Natalie Portman made it through to the other side with their humanity intact. But more often than not, we get tragic stories like that of “Mighty Ducks” actor Shaun Weiss who was arrested last week for robbery under the influence of meth.
Because of this, there is something weirdly poignant about the tattoo that actor Shia LaBeouf – who was himself a child star on Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens” in the early 2000’s – has on the underside of his left wrist. It reads “1986-2004” – the first eighteen years of his life- and resembles the numbers tattooed on concentration camp inmates in Nazi Germany.
“Yeah, it looks like a Holocaust tattoo,” LaBeouf told Parade in 2009. “But they put my grandfather’s number above his chest, up here, (on the shoulder) on the right side. My tattoo is on my wrist. It’s there for me to remember my childhood.”
One can argue about whether LaBeouf’s decision to appropriate iconography from the Holocaust is yet another in a series of often baffling personal choices that he’s made in recent years. But one can’t argue that LaBeouf – like most child actors- has been through some trauma in his life.
When you consider the casualties of the child acting system, it is somewhat miraculous that LaBeouf is still alive. It is even more miraculous that he is able to evaluate his past with as much clear-eyed compassion and grace as he does in “Honey Boy”, which arrived on Amazon Prime yesterday.
The film is a searing and personal act of self-therapy and of making peace with the past. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a film that was this courageous, painful and beautiful.
In his first feature script, LaBeouf lays his heart bare for the audience by telling the story of young Otis Lort, a successful young actor played at different ages by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges (both fantastic).
Even without the references to LaBeouf’s body of work – especially “Even Stevens” and the “Transformers” films- it is clear from frame one that Lort is a thinly veiled LaBeouf stand-in. By the time Lort gets into a drunken altercation with police officers, it is clear that there is very little fiction in this “fictional” story.
This carries through to the heart of “Honey Boy” – the relationship between LaBeouf/Lort and his abusive father (portrayed in a genuinely spectacular performance by LaBeouf himself).
LaBeouf has talked openly about that strained parental relationship – his father was a Vietnam veteran and recovering alcoholic who emotionally, verbally and physically abused his son- and he pulls no punches in “Honey Boy.” There is never any doubt why the teenaged Lort (Hedges) is suffering from PTSD.
But what I love about LaBeouf’s take on this very personal material is how he manages to showcase his father as both a monster and a man. Yes, Labeouf’s father was abusive and cruel and a genuinely unhealthy influence on his son, but the film also shows his humanity and how he was a victim of abuse and trauma – a painful cycle which perpetuates itself much like how poor Otis is repeatedly yanked backwards by a harness for a film stunt.
“Honey Boy” is, in many ways, a film about how to disrupt that cycle – a job easier said than done. LaBeouf himself has acknowledged (in a 2014 interview with Elvis Mitchell) that there is comfort in the pain and that it has informed every role he’s ever played.
“The only thing my father gave me that was of any value to me is pain,” LaBeouf said. “My dad is the key to most of my base emotions. My greatest and my worst memories are with my father, all my major trauma and major celebration came from him. It’s a negative gift. And I’m not ready to let go of it, because anger has a lot of power.”
“Acting is instinctual,” LaBeouf said in the Parade interview. “The good actors are all screwed up. They’re all in pain. It’s a profession of bottom-feeders and heartbroken people.”
One never gets the impression while watching “Honey Boy” (rated R for pervasive language, some sexual material and drug use) that LaBeouf has fully let go of the pain. He finds it too valuable, and it is still there informing every creative choice. But he has perhaps come to peace with the past and developed a better understanding of it. And by putting his pain on the screen, he has crafted a vessel through which we can examine our own traumas- whether large or microscopic.
There is no Hollywood ending in “Honey Boy” – no moment of forgiveness or reconciliation. The film, like the life it depicts, is messy. It knows that sometimes all we are given in life is pain, and we have to do our best to turn that into something beautiful.
“Honey Boy” – for all its messiness and misery- is remarkably beautiful. Not many first-time feature screenwriters can knock it out of the park as well as LaBeouf does in “Honey Boy”. But not many people have lived the life of Shia LaBeouf.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.