By Stephanie Zacharek
Updated: November 7, 2019 4:35 PM ET

Movies based on real-life childhood trauma are always dicey. How is the audience supposed to know how to react to them? If you don’t buy the kid’s suffering, you just feel heartless, as if someone has spilled his deepest secrets and all you can muster is a shrug.

But Honey Boy, written by and starring Shia LaBeouf and based on his own life as a child performer, never paints its audience into that corner. LaBeouf wrote the script during his time in court-mandated rehab for substance abuse, following a 2017 arrest. The director, a documentarian making her feature debut, is Alma Har’el. LaBeouf emailed her a draft of the script from rehab, as if sending out a message in a bottle. The film the two have made together is entertaining and wrenching.

LaBeouf’s stand-in character is Otis, whom we first meet as an adult, played by Lucas Hedges. He’s a Famous Actor, cocky and overbearing but also a model of proficiency when the cameras are rolling. Yet he’s lost when they stop: he drinks, he drives, he does crazy stuff. During a drunken spree, he crashes a car and talks back to the arresting officer. Soon he’s in rehab.

It’s there that a psychologist (Laura San Giacomo) urges him to revisit his childhood, and as the details of his life as a child actor emerge in flashback, you begin to understand why he’s not just an alcoholic but also kind of a jerk: the young Otis (played, by Noah Jupe, with just the right amount of precociousness) is being raised in a depressing housing complex by his father James (LaBeouf), a former rodeo clown with a receding hairline and low self-esteem.

What makes Honey Boy work is that Otis never wallows in his circumstances; like many kids raised in abusive households, he becomes a caretaker of sorts, intuiting that in the end he’ll be O.K. But it’s LaBeouf’s performance as his father that haunts the movie. He’s hateful, but even within the context of this upbringing-as-horror-show, LaBeouf locates crystalline reflections of the better man his father might have been. His performance both exorcises a demon and makes peace with it, which may be a better gift than his father deserves. But then, it’s the giving that counts.

Honey Boy opens in theaters Nov. 8

Correction, Nov. 7

The original version of this story misstated the actor who plays the psychologist. It is Laura San Giacomo, not Linda Fiorentino.

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This appears in the November 18, 2019 issue of News time.

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