why 'honey boy' is the healing film of 2019

Shia LaBeouf's upcoming semi-autobiographical film is an exciting take on art therapy and finding personal growth through the medium of cinema. It's also a great movie.

by Katie Goh
07 November 2019, 1:00pm

When I was a teenager and feeling particularly upset, I would draw thick rings on paper with a pencil, over and over again until the lead snapped, the paper ripped or I calmed down. Even now, as an adult, I still draw to calm myself, usually repeating leaves that fill the page. There’s something to be said about the process of putting something on paper and the release of creativity in your brain -- even drawing simple rings and leaves -- that opens another valve in your brain with great healing power.

That’s the general theory behind art therapy. The branch of psychological therapy is about building up an individual’s sense of self, allowing them to process and release pent up emotions through creativity and visual language, even the low-fi, self-administered version of art therapy I did as a teenager. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy has the potential to “foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”

Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el and written by former child star and walking controversy Shia LaBeouf, is art therapy in motion. The script started life as part of LaBeouf's therapy, when he was in rehab diagnosed with severe PTSD. Encouraged by his therapist, the actor began to write about the source of his trauma: a portion of his childhood spent living at a rundown motel with his father.

In Honey Boy, Noah Jupe plays 12-year-old Hollywood stuntkid Otis, an avatar for LaBeouf. Meanwhile LaBeouf himself plays a version of his dad, James, a washed-up clown now employed to be his son’s acting coach and chaperone. It’s fair to say father and son don’t have the most functional relationship. At best dysfunctional, it soon becomes clear it has the capacity to be a horribly abusive partnership.

Shia LaBeouf in Honey Boy
Screenshot from Honey Boy, Amazon Studios

Honey Boy also documents LaBeouf’s later therapy. The film moves between teenage Otis and an older Otis (played by Lucas Hedges), now in his twenties and working as a Hollywood stuntman. Here’s where things get really meta. While in rehab for addiction, Otis's therapist suggests he writes about his childhood and the source of his adult problems, and he begins a script about his 12-year-old self and dad living together in a rundown motel. The portions of Honey Boy that flashback to Otis and James are therefore not just LaBeouf’s memories but also Otis’, constructed and dramatised as part of his therapy, while Honey Boy, the film, is a constructed and dramatised part of the real LaBeouf’s therapy for his PTSD.

Honey Boy is clearly an exorcism of sorts of a very troubled childhood, a past that was repressed until the point of a very public explosion in LaBeouf’s real life. “It was part of sussing out my past, flashlight to your soul, trying to get to know myself, like a shedding of skin in a way,” LaBeouf told EW about how writing the film worked as his therapy.

But this isn't the first recent film to bring art therapy to the big screen. Last year's Beautiful Boy also told a real-life story about David Sheff and how he dealt with his son Nic's drug addiction. Much like how Honey Boy depicted the painful process of art therapy, Beautiful Boy moves away from the common and dangerous tropes of depicting addiction in cinema, instead showing that the road to recovery is long, bumpy and full of relapses. Perhaps the most famous therapy movie, Girl, Interrupted, is also an autobiographical depiction of recovery based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir about staying at a psychiatric hospital, and also explores this bumpy process of recovery, with the art itself playing a vital part in that journey. The cult popularity of these films speaks to the larger healing power they have for us, the viewer.

Speaking about writing his memoir-film, LaBeouf told The Hollywood Reporter: “It is strange to fetishise your pain and make a product out of it and feel guilty about that. It felt very selfish. This whole thing felt very selfish.” Maybe it is an inherently selfish piece of work (aren’t all art projects ultimately?), but Honey Boy is also a great empathising project. What sets this film apart from the likes of Beautiful Boy and Girl, Interrupted is just how deep Shia goes in processing his pain on screen, depicting the source of his PTSD.

He doesn’t hold back on depicting James’s -- and what we imagine are his own father’s -- pathetic, angry and cruel outbursts, that include belittling his son’s genitalia. But it’s a complex portrayal and one that only works with Shia himself in the role. More than fetishising the pain his father instilled in him, LaBeouf turns it into intimate mask work, weaponising it and using it as part of his healing process. “When life hit me on the chin, my father and I went through similar things, shame was the connective tissue for us,” the actor said speaking to IndieWire about his decision to play his father. “I had more empathy for my father than myself.”

Where the film falters is in its desire to tie everything up into a neat bow. The older Otis goes back to his childhood motel and tells his dad he’s going to turn their relationship into a movie to which James gives his blessing. Tellingly, Shia admitted that he didn’t write the ending himself; instead Har’el found it in the editing room. “I couldn’t reflect on it as an adult,” LaBeouf told IndieWire. “I’m [grown up], yet I am still in the middle of it. I couldn’t find an ending.” The result is perhaps a frustratingly convenient conclusion for a film that’s anything but easy, yet within the context of therapy, Honey Boy’s conclusion makes sense. There’s a cathartic healing to putting a final full stop at the end of your healing process. Real life is messy but art allows us to create closure.

I didn’t expect to get much from Honey Boy. A Hollywood actor turning his past into a well-funded, likely awards-nominated movie about how hard his life is sounds glib on paper, but through an admirable ability to craft simultaneous distance and intimacy, Har’el and LaBeouf have created a beautifully made, healing film that gives as much as Shia likely got from the process. He may lament his selfishness about making Honey Boy but by putting both his trauma and his healing process on screen, Shia is letting us in and allowing us to participate in his art therapy process. It’s catharsism for us, too.

And he's right about endings: there isn’t one for recovering from trauma, even if art allows us to manifest them. It’s too simplistic to say that art can heal all wounds and too naive to expect art therapy to be as neat an emotional package as Honey Boy. But there’s something to be said about the healing power of processing our emotions and traumas from a healthy, safe place, something that movies like Honey Boy allow us to do.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Shia LaBeouf
alma har'el
Honey Boy