Shia LaBeouf veered close to becoming another Hollywood story of a child star sucked into the dark side of the industry. As a charmingly goofy teen in the early 2000s, the now-33-year-old actor became a fixture of midday TV viewing as a star on the Disney Channel's zany sibling comedy Even Stevens. After that, he worked to shed his kid-star skin, starring in the Hitchcockian teen thriller Disturbia, the box office beast Transformers, the period war epic Fury, and plenty of others. But behind it all there were personal demons the young actor was wrestling with, leading to a very public, drunken arrest that brought it all to a head. That moment served as the catalyst for Honey Boy.
Written by LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har'el, Honey Boy (out Nov. 8) is a semi-autobiographical film that recounts LaBeouf's mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically abusive upbringing with his father, a former rodeo clown struggling with substance abuse and his own set of traumas. That experience, as the film depicts, led to LaBeouf's own downward spiral of substance abuse, violent and reckless outbursts and behavior, and his 2017 arrest for public drunkeness, disorderly conduct, and obstruction in Georgia, where he was shooting The Peanut Butter Falcon. The incident was caught on camera and showed the actor spewing misogynistic and racist remarks at his arresting officers.
In 2018, LaBeouf told Esquire that the incident was "mortifying." "My public outbursts are failures," he said. "They’re not strategic. They’re a struggling motherfucker showing his ass in front of the world."
That struggle, and the deep effects of generational trauma, is the story Honey Boy aims to tell. Starring Lucas Hedges and 14-year old Noah Jupe as LaBeouf (who is renamed Otis in the film), the film depicts LaBeouf's court-mandated time at a rehab facility following his arrest, where he undergoes exposure therapy to tackle his trauma. It's there that he is diagnosed with severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and is instructed by his therapist to write down his memories. It's in writing those memories that the audience travels back into LaBeouf's childhood and sees his heart-wrenching, often disturbing relationship with his volatile father, played in disconcertingly meta fashion by LaBeouf himself. His performance is captivating, upsetting, and mind-boggling, considering the psychological and emotional toll it must take to play your own abuser. But LaBeouf creates a profound portrayal in which the audience watches a man who almost lost it all reckon and lay to rest the pain he inherited, and eventually learn to forgive his father.
LaBeouf sent the memories he wrote down while in rehab to his longtime friend, director Alma Har'el, to turn into a movie, for which LaBeouf would pen the script. Har'el told VICE she "felt an urgency to tell this story," not just because she is close friends with LaBeouf, but also because she's "never seen many films told from this perspective, and it just had so many things that I understand, speaking from the perspective of a child of an alcoholic."
With millennials and Gen Z being more vocal about mental health issues than previous generations and the language around therapy seemingly becoming a greater part of our regular vernacular, therapy feels more normalized now than it has ever been in the past. The Wall Street Journal called millennials "the therapy generation," citing a 2017 report from Penn State University's Center for Collegiate Mental Health that found an increase in students seeking help for their mental health from 2011 to 2016. The cultural stigmas surrounding therapy appear to be dissipating, and LaBeouf's openness about his traumas mirrors that of other young celebrities like Demi Lovato, J. Balvin, and Lady Gaga.
In Honey Boy, LaBeouf takes his healing a step further, with Har'el leaning on her background as a documentary filmmaker to share the intimate details of his life. LaBeouf's therapist served as a guide during filmmaking. "[It] actually helped me a lot to understand the effects of PTSD and how to deal with them," explained Har'el.
"[Shia and I have] known each other for seven years. I've been there for him when nobody else was many times. So there was trust, but that doesn't mean that he didn't question my intentions, or was defensive, or was afraid of how his father would be portrayed, and how Lucas and Noah portray him. It was scary. And there were moments of vulnerability, but I think that we all came out of it winning in many ways. We all learned a lot about each other, and got to tell a story a lot of people don't get to tell," Har'el said.
The keys to alleviating what Har'el called "dysfunctional moments" during filmmaking were both constant communication and a tight, familial bond built by the cast and crew. She says LaBeouf spent two months with Jupe prior to shooting, "playing cards together, going to baseball games, learning how to juggle," and many crew members were people LaBeouf had worked with as far back as Even Stevens. In the end, Har'el believes what they created provided catharsis for not just LaBeouf, in whom she observed "something [being] lifted" through the process of therapy and making the film, but hopefully others who see themselves and perhaps their own parents in the story.
"As a society, we don't have a lot of patience for that process. In order to really heal, and in order to make progress and change, we have to understand that things don't change overnight," she said. "That we can come to a recognition of an issues, we can understand what's the cause, then we have to treat it and develop new tools to function in the world. That takes time."
While PTSD and other mental health issues can often be lifelong battles, Honey Boy gives us a thoughtful lesson in understanding the complicated and difficult path to healing.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to amend the amount of time LaBeouf and Jupe spent together prior to filming.