Honey Boy sounds some way more conceptual (let's say it, wankier) than it actually is: a film in which Shia LaBeouf plays a version of his own father, and - as writer-star - strives both to describe the process whereby he was launched on the world as a child star as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, and confront the effect that success had on him as an adult. Some of the names have been changed to protect the debatably innocent. Our onscreen LaBeouf surrogate is called Otis - he's writing about himself in the third person - and played by a newly pumped-up Lucas Hedges as an easily bored, quick-to-drink tearaway first seen on set being shot at by robots that look awfully like those damn Transformers. An enforced spell in rehab cues flashbacks to Otis's youth, when - now incarnated by Noah Jupe as a guileless moppet - he was shuttled to and from the set of a successful kids' show (for which we presumably read Even Stevens) by his heavy-drinking, casually abusive father James - and here's where the real LaBeouf comes in. James could have been just another showbiz monster, this century's Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Instead, the casting of LaBeouf has a balancing effect: for ninety minutes, we watch as a son tries to work out why his father behaved as he did, and more specifically yet, why he behaved as he did towards him. Director Alma Har'el has been scratching around on the indie fringes in the company of non-professional performers (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue); here, she achieves something genuinely radical with a star, forcing a young millionaire to take a long, hard look in the mirror and separate that part of his bad behaviour that was passed down in his genes from that for which he - and he alone - must finally bear responsibility.
Perhaps that gives Honey Boy the air of a therapeutic exercise, possibly one best achieved behind closed doors, but it's a revealing one, both for what it conveys about LaBeouf family dynamics and more generally about family ties. With Mrs. LaB out of the picture via an earlier divorce - an unseen Natasha Lyonne takes a prominent credit for contributing one telephone conversation - the focus is exclusively on that father-son bond, the default axis of mainstream American cinema. Yet Har'el takes it seriously, and goes deep with it; the problem here isn't that this kid didn't have anyone to throw a baseball around with back in the day. Rather, it would appear from this account that dad - an altogether odd, failed former TV personality trailing Mick Miller hair and inexplicable schtick with chickens - was attempting to live out his own fantasies through his child: hence his drill-sergeant manner of parenting, hence his inappropriate comments towards the girls who recognise his boy. Is it possible that Otis/Shia was set on guard for so much of his youth that he was bound to feel boredom even amid the hyper-stimulation of those giant robot movies - that his problems derived from the fact there was no longer anyone threatening to clip him around the ear? If so, that's one heck of a breakthrough for a movie - and a movie star - to make. You can imagine the lessons of Honey Boy being applied to a hundred other cases in the wider Los Angeles area, and an appropriate course of treatment being prescribed.
What's in it for us?, you might well ask. Well, for one thing, Har'el - and her great cinematographer Natasha Braier (In the City of Sylvia, The Neon Demon, Somers Town) - give these images a subtle, haunted beauty commensurate with the sight of people attempting to banish their ghosts and demons. The editing keeps making deft, delicate connections between the present and the past, the child picking through the junkyard adjacent to his roach motel and the young adult lost in the woods surrounding the clinic. And the performers do their bit to ensure the psychology stitches together: the previously milquetoast Hedges assumes some of LaBeouf's confrontational sincerity, that singular need the actor has displayed in his public appearances for others to take him as seriously as he does himself. Perhaps they will from here on out. Backed up by his similarly committed, unsentimental work in last year's The Peanut Butter Falcon, this does look like a breakthrough moment for LaBeouf, the point at which he revealed an emotional maturity no previous director - not Michael Bay, nor Lars von Trier - troubled to coax out of him. What ultimately raises Honey Boy above and beyond the crowded ranks of Hollywood vanity projects is that it's a maturity even those of us who weren't raised as child stars might recognise: the ability to forgive the sins and flaws of our fathers, take whatever love they put in our pocket growing up, and with it resolve to go one better as we plot our own path through this world. At this stage in the 21st century, it's undeniable that the putting on of shows has generated almost as much damage and trauma as it has entertainment, but there have been a few souls for whom the creation of moving images has become therapy, a way of straightening out their own wrinkles, keeping themselves honest and making sense of the universe. LaBeouf is following this path now; watching this deeply affecting act of personal catharsis, we can but hope he carries onwards.
Honey Boy is available to stream via Amazon Prime.