Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 93 minutes. Next screening: Saturday, Feb. 2, 11:30 a.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City.
To watch director Alma Har’el’s drama “Honey Boy” is to witness an act of personal redemption for its star and screenwriter, Shia LaBeouf.
Stay with me here. The oft-maligned LaBeouf, whose offscreen public acts of self-destruction have frequently overshadowed his onscreen talents, has penned an intensely intimate and semi-autobiographical story of a fractured father-son relationship.
Otis, played as an adult by Lucas Hedges, is a movie star in the middle of a personal meltdown in 2005, which ends with a car crash for which he is arrested and placed in a rehab facility. The psychiatrist there (Laura San Giacomo) gives him an empty journal and a writing assignment, to recall every memory he can think of from his childhood. Otis writes his in screenplay form, a nice bit of meta-storytelling, considering LaBeouf wrote this under similar circumstances.
In flashback, in 1995, we meet 12-year-old Otis (played by Noah Jupe, the little brother in “A Quiet Place”) as a juvenile movie star, during production of a family comedy. Also on the set is his chaperone, his father, James (played by LaBeouf). James is a former rodeo clown who drills young Otis in his comic skills after hours in their dingy motel room. James is also an ex-convict, combat veteran and recovering drug addict with a hair-trigger temper.
That temper springs into action when Otis’ mom, James’ ex-wife (Natasha Lynne) is on the phone, or whenever Otis mentions Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.), his mentor through the Big Brothers program. Sometimes, most distressingly, that anger comes out against Otis, when the child asserts his authority over the parent because the kid is the meal ticket.
When James isn’t around, Otis is left to his own devices, and he strikes up a tender relationship with Sky Girl (played by the singer FKA Twigs), a young prostitute who lives in the motel.
Har’el, whose resumé includes music videos and the documentary “Bombay Beach,” handles this explosive material — as well as the sometimes comic, sometimes wrenching rehab scenes — with a sensitive yet unflinching eye. She makes room for LaBeouf, in an achingly powerful performance, to delve into the pain James is feeling without dismissing the pain he inflicts on those around him.
Hedges (“Ben Is Back,” “Boy Erased”) once again shows why he’s the go-to guy to play anguished young men. But the standout is young Jupe, who has great chemistry with LaBeouf and FKA Twigs, and seems to possess the same acting chops LaBeouf did when he was a kid. Here’s hoping Jupe’s path through movie stardom is smoother, and here’s hoping “Honey Boy” is a sign that LaBeouf is exorcising his personal demons and can continue to create challenging art.