At the premiere for Holes, a tiny spiky-haired Shia LaBeouf is asked if he is ready for the explosion of his Hollywood career. He says, quite sweetly, it being one of his first-ever red carpet interviews: “I’m not ready for nothing, dude. I’m 16, I live over there.” The Entertainment Tonight correspondent was probably expecting a response that was indebted to the American Dream. This child actor would be famous, beyond just being the Even Stevens kid. What they may or may not have expected is that within five years, LaBeouf be coined as rude and dangerous; someone hated by the public and seen as a risky bet by the industry.
Long before websites ran headlines like “Why does the world hate Shia LaBeouf?”, LaBeouf was growing up in LA, poor. After his parents separated when he was three, he lived with his mother, who he loved. He once heard her be raped by a man but could do nothing to save her. Soon he lived with his Vietnam vet drug-addict father, who he accompanied to 12-step recovery meetings and was subjected to varying shades of mental abuse. Once, during a PTSD flashback, LaBeouf’s father held a gun to his son’s head. In these early years he decided to become an actor: a decision not prompted by an initial passion for acting but because he met a child actor who had material things – things he and his family wanted.
It was quickly evident that LaBeouf could have all that and more. In 2007, the cover of Esquire touted him as “the next Tom Hanks” and by 2009, he’d had his real acting breakthrough with blockbusters: the Transformers franchise and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But while his career was on an upwards trajectory, his personal life and public image was in jeopardy. In November 2007, LaBeouf was arrested for trespassing after he refused to leave a pharmacy in Chicago. In July 2008 he was involved in a traffic accident in West Hollywood. Although police concur that the crash wasn’t his fault, they suspended his license for a year for being well over the drink driving limit. Up to this point he had a clean criminal record, bar an already forgotten incident that speaks volumes: in 2005, 19-year-old LaBeouf threatened a neighbour with a knife after the neighbour allegedly insulted his mother.
It’s difficult to summarise what happens next without listing the strange incidents he was embroiled in. There were fights at bars (who in London could forget seeing the video of LaBeouf brawling in the least likely place for it: the Hobgoblin pub in New Cross?), telling press that he had affairs with female co-stars in relationships, and stepping into an art practice that involved plagiarised content from Daniel Clowes – and then tweeting plagiarised apologies. In 2014, the year of the "I am not famous anymore" paper bag, a series of offences – peeing in a restaurant, chasing a homeless man, trying to start a fight outside a strip club – led to him voluntarily receiving treatment for alcohol addition. His agent released a statement, which said, “He understands that these recent actions are a symptom of a larger health problem and he has taken the first of many necessary steps towards recovery.”
Despite being mired in this controversy, during those years LaBeouf moved on from Hollywood fodder (which he hilariously addressed) to prove himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2, Charlie Countryman, American Honey and the music videos for Sigur Rós: Fjögur piano and Sia: Elastic Heart were all praised for his performances. Alongside his peers – actors like Chris Pratt, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chris Hemsworth – he stands out for a hyper-emotional, almost childlike approach to what he does.
Those same high emotions and edge in interviews and were taken as arrogance, self-indulgence and pretension. LaBeouf was beyond reproach, the “King of Jerks”. Some understanding has gone into re-examining the suffering of women who were child stars: Amanda Byrnes, Drew Barrymore, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears. But the same concern and holistic consideration has not been quite been extended to male child stars. We believe that they are “handed a golden ticket and set it on fire”, as indeed Esquire said of him. Nowhere had this previously been more true than for LaBeouf. His rehab stint or early history were never weighted against the controversial headlines.
His kiss of death was when footage of his booze-fuelled, racially charged comments to police officers hit TMZ in 2017. He was sent to court-ordered rehab for ten weeks and explained he was “struggling with addiction” and “deeply ashamed”. At this time he was diagnosed as having PTSD from being present at his mother’s rape: helplessness was a trigger for his violence. This violence, however, fit in easily with a general consensus on white toxic masculinity.
La Beouf was no stranger to warped notions of manliness. “I always had a fucked-up view on masculinity,” he said in an interview for Dazed, back in 2014. “My father was a gun nut like Hemingway. He was also a junkie and a bully, mainly to prove he wasn’t effeminate, even though he was a painter and a poet, a mime and a storyteller. Every primitive culture has a puberty ceremony where children become men…For the most part, super-modern or industrialised societies don’t have them any more. We only have the harrowing journey – war in particular.”
Shia LaBeouf goes to war on himself. He always has.
The difference is that now, we understand this. In a new film written by LaBeouf in the latter stint in rehab, he intimately shares the story of his destruction. The autobiographical Honey Boy is a dreamlike meditation on his traumatic childhood spent acting and living with his father and ultimately a slippery but truthful representation of how trauma manifests as an adult. In its opening, an actor who plays adult LaBeouf is flung backwards from an explosion, which turns out to not be a wartime battlefield, but a film set. From there, LaBeouf, who wrote the play himself while in rehab, depicts his own father as a way to gain catharsis. A child actor plays his younger self. The result is overwhelmingly sympathetic and clearly shows the chronic misunderstanding that people have with celebrity: that the rich and famous don’t have and respond to trauma in the same way as the average person.
"As a society, we don't have a lot of patience for the healing process," Honey Boy director and documentary film-maker Alma Har’el tells VICE. "We have to understand that things can't change overnight."
Har’el describes the cathartic directing style of having actors use whatever they were “working through” at the time to make it meaningful for them, as well as how she learned more about PTSD via LaBeouf's therapist, who served as a guide during filmmaking. Har’el was similarly the child of an alcoholic; in interviews with LaBeouf their rapport and adoration for each other is evident. “Films saved my life,” she says, “they allowed me to make meaning in what had happened to me growing up; to express myself to find out who I am.” Their working together resulted in a thorough and meaningful exploration of a shared experience.
The reviews of Honey Boy have been glowing. In them, LaBeouf is praised for “one of the [most] messily believable portraits of a bad dad” and his performance art “so daring, shocking and heartrending you won’t forget it”. In recent interviews he seems collected and almost high in the manner of someone who has very recently taken up kundalini yoga and CBD coffee. Without the excitement of his red carpet younger self, but backed by experience and the knowledge that – as the film suggested – recovery from addiction, especially for second-generation addicts, is a lifelong process.
Har’el says that while in rehab writing his film, LaBeouf was an isolated figure – directors wouldn’t work with him, people in the industry were essentially blacklisting him, no one reaching out to him. It was essentially a devastating rock bottom, the result of which was a stunning 180 turnaround of a character actor's career.
Honey Boy is out in UK cinemas now.