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Alma Har'el's Honey Boy Movie Review: Gut-wrenching memoir about childhood trauma and its after-effects

When I was choosing which films I would attend for Film Fest 919, there were some tough decisions to be made. But there were some absolute must-see films on this list. For me, one such film was Honey Boy. Once I saw the trailer, I was hooked. Although the preview trailer had few details, I knew the plot somehow revolved around the past of a troubled young boy and how that past informed the present life choices of a troubled man. I also knew one Shia LaBeouf was going to portray his own father, and that the screenplay was based on his life. I knew I would love this movie, and that I would probably cry multiple times.

Otis (Lucas Hedges) is a stunt worker for films. At the beginning, we see him hooked up to a harness of some kind. Although it's part of his job, it's clear that his work is dangerous and involves him being put into some unpleasant situations. In a tight montage, we see him drinking, frolicking with a some nameless woman, getting arrested, and acting surly. Cut to: young Otis (played by Noah Jupe) involved in a parallel situation as a young boy, getting pies thrown in his face and being jerked up on some kind of harness, his legs dangling from a height, in the name of entertaining some invisible audience.

We cut back and forth between older and younger Otis. As a child, Otis is raised by his narcissistic father, named James, who trains him to be an entertainer extraordinaire. They live in a crappy motel and shuttle back and forth on a scooter each day, possibly only surviving on vending machine snacks. He often gives his son pep talks and has him perform juggling tricks. If he messes up, Otis must do push-ups and listen to his father rant about how ungrateful he is. Although the father only lays his hands on Otis once, we see excessive abuse happening. Otis is mocked, manipulated, threatened, and used by his father. It's clear that Otis loves James and desperately wants his approval, but James treats him more like an employee than a son, even though we learn that it's because of Otis' work that the pair makes any money.

Meanwhile adult Otis is in court-mandated therapy after so many DUIs. He meets with different people and learn strategies for dealing with his anxiety, like giving himself a hug. He resents the fact that he's diagnosed with PTSD. Slowly but surely he begins to tell the story of his father to his therapist and begin to come to terms with the fact that he's carrying a lot of pain and resentment.

That's all I can say about the plot without going into spoiler territory, plus this film is the kind that is better experienced rather than explained. The performances are crazy good of all three main characters: Shia LaBeouf is using true method acting, possibly going through his own kind of therapy in playing this role. Noah Jupe carries the burden of showing the trauma as it happens, while Lucas Hedges is brilliant, as always, in portraying a person trying to deal with proverbial demons from his past in the context of families. He has done this multiple times now with roles in Peter Hedges' Ben is Back, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased, and also Trey Shults' Waves.

The original score was written by Alex Somers, a frequent collaborator with Jonsi, and sets the mood well of the whimsical paired with the serious. After the film, during the Q & A, many viewers remarked how they felt more compassion towards LaBeouf. Whether or not that was anyone's goal, the movie is a marvel. It portrays deep emotions and hurt using brilliant storytelling. It show how pain in childhood lingers much longer than anyone realizes and the various illogical ways in which pain can manifest itself. Knowing these things, can possibly make us all begin to have a little compassion when we see people doing strange things.