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Noah Jupe plays Otis Lort, based on a young Shia LaBeouf, and LaBeouf plays James Lort, a version of his own father.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

  • Honey Boy
  • Directed by Alma Har’el
  • Written by Shia LaBeouf
  • Starring Shia LaBeouf, Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges
  • Classification 14A; 95 minutes

rating

There may be no place in the world as demoralizing yet magic with possibilities as a seedy Los Angeles motel room. That’s the setting for a lot of Honey Boy, an intense, thoughtful drama about a turbulent showbiz childhood that probably served as a therapeutic experience for the film’s screenwriter and co-star Shia LaBeouf, a child actor turned bad boy himself.

Inspired by LaBeouf’s life, Honey Boy is called that because it is a portrait of a child star who supports his father – so, a variation of sugar daddy. Sometimes the father calls the son that, Honey Boy, but just as often he calls the precocious boy “poop butt,” which, as one might imagine, is problematic as a name for an Oscar-hoping indie film.

Which Honey Boy is. LaBeouf’s script crackles with penetrating dialogue. His acting – LaBeouf portrays a version of his own father – might be the finest of his career.

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New in theatres this week: The gripping The Two Popes, thoughtful Honey Boy and thrilling Dark Waters

With her debut feature, the Bombay Beach documentarian Alma Har’el presents a film soaked in realism and stripped of the sentimentality that often comes with son-and-single-father movies, even the best ones. Dustin Hoffman adorably fixes breakfast with his kid in Kramer vs. Kramer. In Honey Boy, a short-tempered recovering alcoholic and his 12-year-old son share smokes. The boy (Otis, based on a young LaBeouf and played with spontaneity by Noah Jupe) tells his salaried chaperone father, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you.” Which is a hell of a thing for a father to hear, and a hell of a thing for a son to realize.

Otis had a highly dysfunctional upbringing as a child actor.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Honey Boy opens in 2005, with the 22-year-old version of Otis (played stiffly by the usually reliable Lucas Hedges) on the set of a big-time action-disaster film, hanging by a harness. A metaphor, one supposes. He’s a boozer who, after a car accident (not his first), gets sent to a rehab facility. There he’s told he’s likely experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. “From what?” he asks. Well, where do we start?

In 1995, the year most of the film takes place. Adult Otis Lort flashes back to his highly dysfunctional upbringing as a child actor “raised,” if we can call it that, by his troubled father, James Lort. Dad’s a complicated character; LaBeouf’s powder-keg portrayal of him is nuanced and compelling – Christian Bale might take notes on the simmering restraint at work.

Here’s Dad’s deal: He’s a balding, paunchy, former soldier, ex-rodeo clown, divorced, recovering drunk with anger-management issues and the sniffy voice of a man with a septum ravaged by cocaine. He loves his boy, is envious of his boy, protects his boy, is paid by his boy, teaches his boy, shares smokes with his boy, hits his boy. Apparently there’s a sexual-assault conviction in his past, too. So, here’s what I do not understand: Why is a former felon, disastrously unreliable and prone to rages, charged with watching over and mentoring his son? Was Charlie Sheen not available?

His troubled father is capable of occasional insight into the human condition.

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

LaBeouf’s script is tight and potent, but a few pretentious lines sneak through. “A seed has to destroy itself to be a flower." Here’s another one: “You can walk on water, until someone tells you that you don’t know how to.” Such dime-store philosophy can be found in old Kung Fu episodes, and has no place in this serious, fearless movie.

Honey Boy is built on the scenes between father and son. LaBeouf and young Jupe seem to work off-book at times, and the freewheeling is something to see. It’s funny, in another father-and-son-against-the-world film, The Road, the dad teaches his boy how to position a loaded pistol in the roof of his mouth in case the cannibals close in – and yet one gets the sense the son will be fine. In this film by LaBeouf and Har’el, a boy wants a father but has a paid supervisor instead. That’s going to stick to a kid. Call him honey boy.

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Honey Boy opens Nov. 29 in Toronto and Vancouver

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