Sundance film: ‘Honey Boy,’ based on childhood of Shia LaBeouf, explores rocky father-son relationship
The words carried an unmistakable urgency.
That’s how filmmaker Alma Har’el describes a script Shia LaBeouf sent her based on his experience as a child actor with a father suffering from addiction. Having grown up with an alcoholic father herself, Har’el was struck by the honesty on the page. It demanded immediate attention.
That’s why Har’el, who at the time was planning to direct a film she had written, agreed to helm LaBeouf’s project instead. It became “Honey Boy,” which is screening as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition and stars LaBeouf as a character based on his father. The film depicts the character’s contentious relationship with his son over the course of a decade.
“The way he wrote the script, the language he used, the way the characters jumped out of the page, it just seemed like something that somebody prepared their whole life to write,” said Har’el, who had previously worked with LaBeouf in 2012 on the music video for Sigur Rós’ “Fjögur píanó,” which was lauded by critics both for his performance and her direction.
LaBeouf, known for starring in the “Transformers” series and in a handful of other blockbusters, wrote the script while in rehab following a widely publicized arrest for public drunkenness in 2017. It was a point in LaBeouf’s life, Har’el said, in which he had to account for the trauma he went through as a child.
Friday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m., Eccles Theatre
Saturday, Jan. 26, 12:15 p.m., Grand Theatre
Saturday, Jan. 26, 10 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2
Sunday, Jan. 27, 9:15 p.m., Sundance Mountain Resort
Wednesday, Jan. 30, 9:30 p.m., The Ray Theatre
Saturday, Feb. 2, 11:30 a.m., The MARC Theatre
By LaBeouf’s own admission, his childhood was turbulent. At 13, he became famous for his lead role on the Disney Channel hit “Even Stevens.” But in a 2018 interview with Esquire, he detailed traumatic events like hearing a man rape his mother, and accompanying his father, a Vietnam veteran, to meetings of a 12-step substance addiction program.
His ability to tap into his childhood made for a compelling script, Har’el said. She compared LaBeouf channeling his experiences onto the page to the ouroboros, the ancient symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail.
“He kind of ate his own pain and trauma to produce some gold,” Har’el said.
But translating a script that carried such personal meaning onto film was a challenge for Har’el, who previously earned acclaim for a pair of documentaries that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. She felt pressure to ensure the film reflected the honesty in LaBeouf’s script and would feel authentic to viewers who suffered childhood abuse, particularly at the hands of a loved one.
In addition to exploring the lingering effects of childhood trauma, the film touches on situations that define masculinity and the expectations that come with it. Har’el describes the process of mining those themes in the film as “a sort of artistic exorcism.”
Fortunately, she said, the cast was also devoted to grappling with the truths in the story. Joining LaBeouf on screen are Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe, who play Otis, a fictionalized version of LaBeouf, at different ages.
“We really wanted to make sure we do justice both with Shia’s story and what he put down on paper and also with the potential of telling a story like this,” she said.
The result is a film Har’el believes will move audiences, though she is hesitant to tell viewers how they should feel as they watch it.
“I’m actually really excited to share it with the world and see the effect it has,” she said. “I have a feeling that it’s going to be profound.”
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