Make Me Look Good: Performing Love and Trauma in Honey Boy
To tell the story of a young man reckoning with the introspective trauma of his past, Alma Hare’el creates a dream world from Shia LaBeouf’s memories with Honey Boy. To celebrate READ ME’s first birthday, Ella Kemp writes from the Toronto International Film Festival once more about one of the most moving new movies to anticipate this Autumn.
A little boy, 12 years old, wearing sherbet yellow satin pyjamas is smoking a cigarette in his trailer. The hazy cloud exhaled from his lips cloaks the air with this misty blanket, getting mixed up with the golden light stretching through a tiny window. The image is so beautiful, but its implication, the root of it all, protrudes menacingly. He’s too young for this, why isn’t anyone looking out for him? It’s nowhere near too late, how has he not been raised otherwise?
The boy is Otis Lort, played by Noah Jupe, a thinly veiled proxy for actor Shia LaBeouf. Even Stevens, Transformers, American Honey, Nymphomaniac – yes, that Shia LaBeouf. The actor pens his own story in Honey Boy, a still raw and deeply sensitive catharsis framing one boy’s early trauma through his precocious career and fragile relationship with an abusive father. In the film, Jupe plays Otis/Shia at 12, Lucas Hedges tags in to take on the role at 22. LaBeouf portrays James Lort, the film’s version of his own father.
From a distance, Honey Boy taps into a trend of pictures about vulnerable young men grappling with anger, fear, and the lack of love that brings these two emotions to the fore. But as the film unfolds through discreet nods to moments that only LaBeouf could remember, and dares to lay bare with little to no accessory entertainment, the performance is one that only belongs to him – he’s not hiding in any way. The conventional labels – biopic, coming-of-age – sound insufficient to pinpoint what’s being achieved here in a thoughtful and brave memoir, born from a need to exorcise so much hurt, delivered with the poetry to sweep a listening audience into the fervour of it all.
When the film premiered at Sundance in January 2018, LaBeouf confessed it is still very much etched in his own wounds. “It is strange to fetishise your pain and make a product out of it and feel guilty about that,'' he said, “It felt very selfish”. The three father-and-son actors, under the meditative eye of director Alma Har’el, engage fully with their sadness individually, but master the performative identities of people who seem much more together than they ever truly feel.
Har’el makes room for the boys to play out their frustration, by building a world that looks like a dream and sounds quiet enough to let the dreamers fill in the story gaps themselves. The wide open, hollow sound of an empty room is punctured with the pat of a juggling ball hitting the palm of a hand, the piercing cluck of a frantic chicken, the sudden shoot of a seed growing a new leaf. A score so gentle (by Alex Somers, with the recognisably ethereal timbre first delivered on Captain Fantastic) dips in and out of the frame, a soft motif that could belong to a shy toymaker: every tweak and turn of a brand new jack-in-the-box’s coils winding up, making clickety-clackity noises as it comes to life. A piano tinkles and whispers over Otis’s memories, as his panoramic sadness at once unfolds in real time and stays with him through never-fading past images.
There are so many precautions deployed to save and protect Otis, but prevention can only get you so far in the face of marrow-deep feeling. The actor never loses his harness, as fake explosions launch him, at 22, into the air. At 12, he’s suited up already. But neither of these dressings could save him from a slap in the face that sounds plucked from hell, or from the middle position of literally performing two sides of a violent phone call between his parents. He echoes his mother at the end of the line explaining why she jumped from a moving car, he repeats his father’s screams reminding everyone how he put his life on the line for that kid. It’s hard to remain indifferent in the face of such unjust emotional destruction.
The performance of trauma in Honey Boy feels precious because it acknowledges its roots and doesn’t contest the severity – and accepts that some things just can’t be fixed, avoided, saved. The film can survive as an independent narrative of a strained relationship, a struggling boy, but thrives when put into context with LaBeouf’s vital reckoning. He self-diagnoses in the film as an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex,“ as a “professional schizophrenic”. He lets his characters explain why telling stories is the most essential way to stay alive – how everything else that’s tangible (and so, breakable) disintegrates sooner or later.
These are people who do what they’re told and suffer when others don’t do what they wish they could tell them. Otis plays the parts that pay the bills, he reads the lines and does the push-ups when he needs to increase his heart rate. He pays the girl he can’t trust to love. In rehab he screams when he’s told, and writes when it’s all that’s left.
But it’s when relics of the past linger and poison the present that it becomes too difficult to just perform all the time. When missing a person becomes unbearable until the phenomenon can only be purged in order to survive. LaBeouf writes with such wisdom, understanding that it’s not enough to just let someone in – what do you do when you’re in there, and still don’t know where to go? What do you do with the grudge and the bruises in order to grow? Honey Boy is made from the stuff of dreams, but never loses sight of how much the reality of performing them so often can taint the truth of keeping love alive. You’ve got to be so brave to hold onto what hurts the most.
Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and editor based in London. She is the Contributing Editor for READ ME and can also be found at Culture Whisper, the Quietus, Little White Lies, Empire and more. Her favourite word is “verklempt” because it’s what she often is.