How Shia LaBeouf’s new film “Honey Boy” captures the trials of modern masculinity, the importance of developing a healthy male identity at a time when unbridled expressions of maleness are often considered toxic in mainstream culture. By taking on the role of his real life father in the movie, LaBeouf uses his own life experience to articulate how to live better as a modern man.
“The only thing my father ever gave me of any value is pain.” ~ Otis, Honey Boy
Shia Labeouf’s Honey Boy, written as a personal assignment in rehab and directed by documentarian Alma Har’el, is a film about the passage of ancestral pain and the necessity of coming to terms with it. Like much of LaBeouf’s career, Honey Boy is a microcosm of the broader culture: the deterioration of established traditions and hierarchies, the crisis of meaning that invariably follows, and the generational cost of each which, against our best efforts, inevitably harms the ones we love most. Although the world is improving in many ways, the identity of the West has been degenerating for decades, leaving the younger generation feeling betrayed by the elder. But LaBeouf has mastered the art of honing dignity in an era shorn of role models, proper paths, and correct choices. This quality is brilliantly laid to bear in Honey Boy, which is based on LaBeouf’s life and in which he plays the role of his real life father Jeffrey LaBeouf.
A bit of context is in order. At 33 years old, Shia is the most prominent and prolific actor of the millennial generation. He began as a child star of the hit Disney show “Even Stevens” before climbing the Hollywood ranks to become a bonafide celebrity, heading off the Transformers series in the mid-aughts before acquiring roles beside the likes of Brad Pitt and Gary Oldman by the 2010s. Always the eccentric (at 10 years old, he found his first agent in the Yellow Pages by impersonating a British talent manager), LaBeouf’s extracurricular antics beyond the silver screen could be chalked up to his child stardom along with the burden of living in the public spotlight. But after a series of arrests stemming from drunken debauchery, Shia was forced to check into a rehab facility or otherwise be sent to prison. It was here that he was diagnosed with PTSD and, as a form of therapy, was asked to journal about his life. The result was both an excavation of his childhood trauma and the attendant screenplay which, upon sending to one of his few remaining friends, would later become “Honey Boy”.
The film is presented as a time machine between Shia’s tumultuous adulthood and his early ventures as a child actor – going back and forth between the mid 2000s and his first major role in the 90s (the time frame is slightly altered from real life in the film). During this time he was living in an apartment complex with his father, a former rodeo clown, veteran, and convicted felon, and the film juxtaposes between the present expressions of Shia’s pain in rehab and its historical origins in experience. In the movie, Otis (Shia’s stand in) yearns for the affections of his outrageous dad James, who is too busy domineering and taking ownership of his son’s success to notice. This, despite the fact that Otis has hired him to be his chauffeur, payrolling James like a rent-a-dad.
But James is abusive towards Otis, in ways both physical and psychological. When Otis tries to hold his hand, he shucks it off. When he tries to lean on him, James pushes his son away. Out of sheer desperation and male egotism James tries to take control of Otis in any and every way he can, knowing full well that his own ship has sailed and his boy has surpassed him as a performer. Still, Otis continues to look up to his dad, clamoring for a love James is incapable of giving while seeking to garner the hardened wisdom that all sons seek out from their fathers. Meanwhile, the boy’s mother, who is largely absent from the film, acts as an invisible support system for Otis during this time. As the archetypal duty-bound single mother, she allows Otis to connect with his father whilst maintaining a safe distance. A scene in this vein lays to bear this tumultuous three-way relationship that many children of divorce (myself included) know all too well:
James: “Why does she have a job? Think it through, play the tape out. What’s your mother got a job for?”
Otis: “Just in case.”
James: “In case what? In case what?!”
Otis: “I don’t.. I don’t know.”
James: “In case you fail! In case it don’t work out!”
James: “Yes man! She’s filling your head full of fear. I don’t never do that do I? I Pump you up full of strength! Because we’re on a team and I know you got what it takes. You’re a fucking star and I know it, that’s why I’m here. I’m your cheerleader, honey boy. You trust me?”
To feel the weight of this dynamic in its fullness, it’s necessary to zoom out and see the bigger cultural picture. America has the world’s highest rate of children living in single parent homes at about one third of the population, most of them fatherless. As study after study would indicate, children do better in life when raised by two parents, and one of the more accurate predictors of criminality in men is the absence of a healthy male figure in their upbringing. Couple this with the fact that women are increasingly graduating college at higher rates than men and 31% of American men are currently out of the workforce, and the portrait of modern man begins to look fallen and bedraggled.
Shia’s dad was part of the first generation of men – the Baby Boomers – who went onto experience first-hand the yawning expectation gap between past ideals and present realities, between the golden age of white male dominance and an increasingly feminine and multi-ethnic culture that’s newly ashamed of its history. James represents this fall from innocence, as the eyes of the world are now cast critically upon men like him. In the film he is flailing, entitled, and sexually frustrated – even going as far as to hit on a young prostitute at the apartment complex with whom Otis later becomes friends. In his abuse of Otis, his not so subtle racism, his resentment towards Otis’s mother, and his blatant disrespect of any form of authority outside of his own, James embodies an archetype I would describe as “placeless masculinity”, an overflow of what the kids call “big dick energy” which, with nothing to direct it towards or against, inverts back upon its host in the form of shame, rage, and self-hatred.
Otis is the progeny of this intergenerational chaos and the attendant harm wrought by it. But the film is not as much about the urgency to shed our past, as it is about facing it soberly without cringing and vomiting all the while, moving emphatically into a more balanced future. Breaking the vicious cycle of suffering generated by destructive parental figures involves recognizing its human origins in trauma. In the real world, Shia has come to see his dad as a sympathetic figure – a man out of his time desperately grappling with his demons – rather than a symbol of patriarchal oppression.
In a powerful scene at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, James tells his story:
“Drama… It was always drama. My mom ended up falling out of a window and landed on a freeway. Major fucking drama. After she died I grieved her… then I joined the army to find some structure cause what else? Then I came home and I spun out. I did so much fucking cocaine I can’t breathe out my nose no more. I started shooting in my arm. Just didn’t give a shit no more. Drinking everyday straight. Weeks. Fell into a blackout. Woke up a sex offender. They told me I didn’t rape this woman but I did enough to get her to jump out of a moving car… That’s where my disease took me… and they took me up to Tehachapi and I stayed there for three years and nine months… Lost a lot… Found the program in jail. Found God in the program. Found page 429 says those actions that once made you feel completely ashamed and totally discouraged will allow you to share with other people how to be a useful human being. By the gratitude of God I realized I had a son I had to raise. A boy. My boy… Otis.”
The climax of the film is a fight between Otis and James, wherein the boy musters the courage to confront his father over his lackluster fatherly performance.
Triggered, James reacts with violence, and the boys part ways, emotionally distraught, before coming to an agreement the following day:
“How do you think it feels to have my son talk to me the way you talk to me, to have my son paying me? How do you think that feels?”
“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you.”
At this, James is shaken to the core and, in tears, tells Otis that if he stops condescending to him he’ll teach the boy everything he knows. Otis agrees, and although in reality this agreement deteriorated with time, the sentiment is one of accepting the flaws of those we love.
Honey Boy is a testament to the power of forgiveness, of absolving the human locus of our pain not simply for the sake of our own recovery from trauma, but also for the world to become a better place. Once Otis acknowledges the role his father played in his own alcoholism, he can see him clearly as an individual rather than a heinous force of nature. The impulse to blame is dissolved by the terrifying realization that we are all doing the best we can all the time. Blame is yet another way of reflexively escaping pain, and we are each responsible for healing ourselves from our own private suffering. In forgiving the sins of his father and recognizing James’ fallen humanity beneath his histrionics, Otis becomes a fully fledged adult capable of carving his own path through the world and rendering his life a work of art. The film ends with Otis leaving rehab and setting about the next phase of his life, spiritually renewed.
What does all of this say about our culture?
In an era of masculine shame and resentment, LaBeouf posits a modern formulation of male identity that doesn’t clamor for a past golden age or conjure a utopian future: instead, it uses the energy created by our suffering to make our lives better. Pain is a great source of energy and, with care and subtle awareness, we can choose how to channel it in healthy and productive ways. That emotional intensity can devour us until we’ve hardened into a shell of a person – capable only of spitting venom upon anyone who dares come near us – but it can also be expressed outwardly into good works that foster relationships and build community. The truth about our pain is that, although it feels intensely personal to us, it is in fact connected to the pain of all other people, and once this reality is accepted we can go about uncovering the invisible thread that connects our pain to the suffering of the world and, in doing so, arrive upon the depths of our humanity. And perhaps no pain is more intertwined in our cultural moment than that between father and son.
Shia’s response to his own daddy issues, ancestral pain, and interpersonal fallout from both, is to galvanize introspection and honesty in the service of becoming more human, becoming his own father in a spiritual sense.
It would be both cliché and hapless to go on about how we need to cultivate a greater respect for the trials of maleness in our society and open up more cultural space for young men to thrive, but this is not an exclusively male issue. We are living through a moment where the sins of the past have been justly revealed but a rubric for the future is direly needed. Thus the problem must be approached in reverse: How can men and women alike develop an idea of maleness that earns the respect of the wider culture? I don’t have the answer to that question, nor does Shia, nor does anyone for that matter, but wisdom would suggest the questions are of greater import than the answers. Honey Boy is a deeply personal story that may not provide a universal answer to the question of modern masculinity; but in shedding light on the inner workings of its protagonist, it does present the right question.