Heath Ledger talked about being so horrified at the surfer boy blond billboard persona he’d become he set about destroying and rebuilding his career, resulting in the roles that made his name as a serious thespian like those in in The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain, Candy and I’m Not There. Who knows how far a talent like his would have gone?
Shia LeBeouf seemed to want to do the same thing after the fairground rides of Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull, treading on the toes of some of the most powerful directors and producers in Hollywood in the process. Showing up at awards ceremonies with a bag on his head and the endlessly meme-able ‘just do it’ rant seemed to be a mediocre former movie star imploding.
If it had been possible to buy shares in actors, that nadir would have been the time to invest in him, because there was no telling how his stock would rise in independent and avant garde projects like The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, the Nymphomaniac series, American Honey (which I hated even though his performance was good) and The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Those bag-wearing days seemed to be setting up a mission statement of a creative oddball who’d do way-out roles in small or indie films where character meant something for untested or auteur directors while Bay, Spielberg and his first phase collaborators could have the multiplexes all to themselves.
And in true artist form, the tailspin of those days (fuelled by alcohol, we’re apparently supposed to believe) led to a stretch in rehab that revealed the dysfunction of his life as a kid under the care of his ne’er do well showbiz father. The diaries and notes he took at the time of the therapy eventually became a script, and Honey Boy (his Dad’s childhood nickname for him) is the result.
LeBeouf plays his own father, with Noah Jupe as himself at around 10 years old, all of it flashbacks remembered by his adult self years later when he’s in rehab for alcohol and anger issues. The only changes are the names, with his father named James and the impatient and angry but ultimately lost and terrified grown up son named Otis.
Although he already works in film and TV, Otis and his weaselly Dad live in a shabby motel, endlessly hustling for acting gigs and side gigs (in one, his Dad plants a marijuana crop beside an LA freeway, delighted that the city is doing his watering for him).
It’s a relationship as toxic as they come, James pretending to love Otis (and maybe even doing so), but really just holding on to the meal ticket. He’s a military vet and an alcoholic, only too eager to let loose his rage about how unfair life is being to him because of the bitch of an ex wife he can’t get along with and the kid dragging him down with responsibilities.
Somehow Otis has been remanded to his father to raise him, although any social services department worth its salt seems like only days away after James’ very public antics. He baits arguments with other down-at-the-heels residents of the motel, verbally and eventually physically assaults his son regularly and invites his ex’s new partner (Clifton Collins Jr) to a trashy but jovial BBQ lunch before turning on the man viciously just as he’s starting to relax and warm up to James.
But amid what seems like a deadbeat-of-the-month TV movie, there are moments of real warmth and even humour. It’s full of spark, crackling with life and emotion and it feels incredibly authentic on screen, LeBeouf’s hangdog expression and slight frame at odds with his meth addict-like energy level and a sense of dangerous anger simmering just underneath. Many people are calling it the role of his career and they’re not far wrong, but it’s also Jupe who’s called on to do far more than most actors of his age group and who doesn’t stumble for a single beat.
To LeBeouf it seems like catharsis, probably with a measure of familial forgiveness. For the rest of us, it’s another worthy example in the dramatic subgenre that reveals how many different ways we can interpret the word ‘family’.
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