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Shia LaBeouf's 'Honey Boy' and the Powerful Gaze of Alma Har'el

November 21, 2019
3 min read time

Honey Boy is a beautiful, but deeply unsettling experience. Constructed from the personal life of a famous actor and crafted into a masterful indie film by director Alma Har’el, it’s one of those box office rarities that reminds us just how powerful story can be.  

If you’re an indie film buff, or just a Shia LaBeouf fan from his Even Stevens days, you know that Honey Boy closely chronicles his young life. The film focuses on the span of time when LaBeouf lived with his father in a seedy motel, while his Dad battled both alcoholism and navigating the problematic power dynamic of being paid by his son to work as an on-set caregiver—a gig he only showed up for on a whim.

The story is the antithesis of box office fare, but its audience numbers are proving otherwise as it leads the indie box office even with a limited release strategy. LaBeouf, while a household name as an actor, is still a fledgling screenwriter. He paid to host the script on the famed Black List, and also submitted it to a myriad of screenwriting competitions he did not win. Aspiring filmmakers take note: accolades, fame—or lack thereof—do not get movies made. Thankfully for audiences, passion and grit won in the end to bring the can’t-look-away tear-jerker to screens.

Audiences are also lucky the project fell into the deft hands of director Alma Har’el. She helms the film with a steady hand, a female perspective, and a crew ready to adapt on the fly. Har’el and LaBeouf have nothing but a love fest for each other. The director has tweeted that LaBeouf sent her pages of the script while he was still in a court-mandated rehab stint. LaBeouf has called Har’el “a straight G” and a talent he leaned on throughout the process. The fact that they met at all is about as happenstance as it gets; a rare, happy Hollywood coincidence. LaBeouf was in the famed record store Amoeba Music and stumbled across Har’el’s acclaimed documentary, Bombay Beach, while shopping for Dylan records (Har’el uses Dylan in her infinitely watchable documentary). After LaBeouf watched Har’el’s quirky story of life and love at the shores of Bombay Beach, he reached out via her website. Now, a few years later, the filmmakers are surrounded by murmurs of Oscar buzz.

Har’el’s documentary experience lends an undeniable intimacy to the incredibly personal story of Honey Boy, and LaBeouf’s trust in Har’el is notable. Har’el says LaBeouf never came to set when he was not in a scene, worried his mere presence would affect the director’s portrayal of him. There is also a motion and a poetry to Honey Boy that likely would not have been captured without a crew ready to move at a moment’s notice. Also, let’s pause to appreciate how splendid and refreshing it is to have a woman at the helm of a man’s story.

Upon further consideration, the female perspective in Honey Boy is not just notable, it also feels necessary. Noah Jupe, aka young Shia, aka “Otis” in the film, has an intimate relationship with musician FKA Twigs (“Shy Girl” in the film), a hotel dweller with the oldest profession in the world. Under a different eye, this relationship could feel like a one-dimensional plot device, but instead, it is dynamic, intricate and complicated. A few furtive glances in a laundry room, and one night in Otis’s hotel room will break your heart in five different ways.

Har’el also masters the trick of creating sympathy for the film’s anti-hero. Har’el and LaBeouf pull the sleight of hand trick of generating love for a broken-hearted clown, James Lort (a version of LaBeouf’s father). LaBeouf’s Lort rides the line of a charming addict equally ready to give you love or inflict pain, all the while doling out the limited approval that Otis clearly would do anything to win. The audience sees Lort as Otis sees him—a son that would easily forgive if Lort gave him half a chance. LaBeouf is rumored to have delivered many scenes in just one take. Perhaps living in Lort was too painful for any more. But just as Lort is addicted to the bottle, we are addicted to watching his unpredictable nature. We’re left hanging on his every word, longing for a joke, a trick, or a tender moment to come from a man who made his living on the very notion of surprise.

It is no wonder Har’el was the perfect fit for this movie. Her latest passion project is morphing her efforts to get women behind the camera for ad work (Free the Bid) into Free the Work. Free the Work is designed to make hiring diverse filmmakers easier. Filmmakers can host their work on the platform while companies can track their own diversity efforts. Har’el puts it simply, “People who are trying to stay relevant should understand that they are going to perish if they don't understand that going to panels about diversity and doing lots of virtue signaling is not enough.”

Thank goodness Honey Boy did not perish under the clutter of Hollywood. Nothing about it is traditional, and everything is relevant to the human condition, which made it the perfect fit for a groundbreaking director who has made it her mission to support talent on the fringe that belongs in the spotlight.

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