Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

'honey boy' director alma har’el on working through trauma with shia labeouf

The autobiographical film tackles toxic masculinity, addiction, and PTSD with help from FKA twigs.

by Sarah Gooding
08 November 2019, 5:49pm

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

In a world where chaos can feel like the only constant, movies like Honey Boy make sense. Written by Shia LaBeouf in a court-ordered rehab after being arrested for public drunkenness, it’s a highly personal story of his lifelong battle with trauma, addiction, and PTSD.

LaBeouf utterly transforms into the role of his father, James – a pot-bellied rodeo clown plagued with addiction and a thick Southern accent — who’s paid to chaperone his 12-year-old actor son Otis (based on LaBeouf IRL and played by the indomitable Noah Jupe). The film swings between decades, with Lucas Hedges starring as the 22-year-old Otis who begins to unravel and finally undergo therapy. It’s extremely meta and at times surreal, but all the while achingly beautiful.

If Honey Boy feels miraculous, that’s because it kind of is. The film is the product of a close collaboration that began after LaBeouf came across director Alma Har’el’s first documentary, Bombay Beach, at Amoeba Records. “He watched it twice that night!” Har’el’ exclaims. “And then he sent me an email and we met. We discovered that we both have a lot to work out through the stories we want to tell.”

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

It turned out that both Har’el and LaBeouf had similarly fraught upbringings as children of alcoholics. At the time they met, Har’el was starting to work on a music video for Sigur Rós that “dealt with addiction and the perpetuation of intergenerational pain, and what a prison that is.” Two weeks after that fateful encounter, Har’el cast LaBeouf in the video. Later, LaBeouf stepped in as financier and executive producer for Har’el’s second documentary, LoveTrue, after she had struggled to secure financing. “Shia and me have really helped each other,” she says fondly.

The pair have indeed built a close bond over the years. When LaBeouf was arrested in 2017 and began to write his life story as part of his therapy, naturally, Har’el was the one he sent it to. “While he was [in rehab] he was diagnosed with very severe PTSD, which is some of the reason for his behavioral problems, combined with his addiction and alcoholism. He did exposure therapy, where he was asked to go into this period of his life and act it out in the room with his therapist. He would then write down all these notes. He started putting them into something and he sent it to me,” she says.

“At the time not a lot of people had spoken to him, so it was very moving to receive it and discover everything that had happened to him,” Har’el says. “I felt like I had to help him tell the story.”

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

The director was drawn to the “meta” aspect of the project. “It’s not like a biopic of any sort, [but] it is inspired by his life events and is very much true to what happened at the time he was on the Disney show,” she says, referring to LaBeouf’s breakout role on Even Stevens as a 14-year-old. “It’s really a crazy mindfuck to think that people were watching this show on Disney Channel while all of this was going on. I think a lot of people who live with childhood trauma… they have this very secret life… and a lot of shame that they carry for many, many years. I wanted to explore all of that in the context of performance and fame and all of those things that we tend to think of as a society as glamorous.”

Honey Boy portrays LaBeouf’s personal story with unflinching honesty, but it also illuminates the socio-political implications of toxic masculinity and trauma. Early on, Har’el said she made the film for other children of alcoholics, but then realized that “the whole world is dealing with daddy issues right now, so it’s kind of become bigger than that.”

“I think that the whole world is dealing with the archetype idea of masculinity and how it’s been playing out in the world,” she says. “I think it’s really about what we inherit, in terms of our ideas and our expectations of the masculine, which have been perpetuated through the media and film, only through the eyes of men.”

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

While she barely speaks in the film, FKA twigs plays a vital role as Shy Girl, James and Otis’ near-mythical neighbor. Strutting around the dimly lit motel in thigh-high patent leather boots, she’s like a hologram of twigs herself. Har’el says the dancer and singer “brought a completely otherworldly quality” to the film, and it seems that fate may have played a hand in her taking the part.

Twigs’ long-awaited second album Magdalene not only shares a release day with Honey Boy, but her character in the film originally shared the same name – almost. “Funny enough, when I sent [the script] to twigs, the name of the character was Magdalena, and she was making a record at the same time about [Mary] Magdalene,” Har’el says. “I think that was one of the reasons she agreed to even make the film.”

As twigs explained in a recent interview with i-D, she was inspired by the biblical Mary Magdalene and how she was both “amazing” and “written out of the bible [as] ‘a prostitute.’” Her character in Honey Boy is an amalgamation of various “working girls” that LaBeouf grew up with at the motel — Har’el sought to capture their complexities. “We don’t really see a lot of girl characters that are both the mother and the whore,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

“The woman who played her pimp, whose name is Debra [Jones], was a real ex-recruiter for a pimp, but she’d got out of that life. We brought her in to work with twigs and ended up casting her,” Har’el explains. “twigs wanted her to name her character, because that’s what she used to do; she named the girls. So, she named her Shy Girl.”

twigs’ Shy Girl provides some of the more tender — albeit confusing — moments in the film. While it’s unclear her exact relationship to Otis, that’s part of the film’s beauty. Because in the end, the whole thing is about finding your way out of the dark chaos and into the light.

LaBeouf has likened Honey Boy to an exorcism, which is understandable considering he mined his most traumatic moments to make it. For the rest of us, it’s a stunning reminder of just how much it’s possible to overcome.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Honey Boy is in theaters now.

FKA Twigs
Shia LaBeouf
alma har'el
lucas hedges
Honey Boy
noah jupe