Shia LaBeouf, now 33, has already had a lot of lifetimes in the public eye. He was a child star, then a grown-up star in “Transformers” movies and the most recent “Indiana Jones” film.
He also was in the public eye in a different way. Bad press followed him around, from alleged jerky behavior to an opinionated mind.
LaBeouf seems to have burned a few bridges along the way (to find out what Harrison Ford unprintably thought about him, do a quick Google search). Now he’s written a movie, and it comes across as an explanation for whatever weirdness has bedeviled him.
The film, “Honey Boy,” is an autobiographical drama about a child actor. It clearly draws on LaBeouf’s memories of his strange childhood; where most coming-of-age stories aim for universality, this one could really only have happened to one person.
In the film the kid is Otis (played by the reflective Noah Jupe, from “A Quiet Place”). While Otis is our central character, the film is dominated by his dad, James, a resentful, needy, pushy stage father. He is played by Shia LaBeouf.
The fact that LaBeouf wrote the movie and stars as his own father sounds like a possible “Daddy Dearest” in the making: a son getting revenge against an overbearing parent. But the most interesting thing about “Honey Boy” is its multi-faceted portrait of James, who comes across as more pathetic than monstrous.
James is a failed showbiz hopeful himself, a professional clown who never found success. Divorced, he tends Otis’s career, his envy sometimes balanced by his protectiveness. “You made it,” he says to his son in awe and bewilderment, the words almost sticking in his throat.
This portrait is the best thing about the movie, and LaBeouf’s performance is compelling. Dressed in the 1970s garb of a second-rate TV magician, and prowling the grounds of the family home (a cheap L.A. motel) with his temper set on a hair-trigger, James is a fiercely realized character.
There’s also a framing story, with a grown-up Otis (played by the ever-reliable Lucas Hedges, from “Manchester on the Sea”) dealing with addiction issues. This is a much more conventional part of the film, a recovery scenario that presumably means a lot to LaBeouf but doesn’t find its own footing.
There are interesting folks in the cast, including Clifton Collins Jr., as a good guy who committed the unforgivable error of being a Big Brother to Otis, and thus a perceived rival to James. We also get the feature debut of singer FKA Twigs, as a sympathetic prostitute who lives in the motel complex.
“Honey Boy” director Alma Har’el creates a woozy, sunbaked style for the material. She has a talent for finding the rhythm of intense exchanges between characters — and there are quite a few of those here.
Will this film get LaBeouf out of the Hollywood doghouse? Maybe, but at the very least you’ll gain some measure of sympathy for why a very successful adult would still be acting out childhood traumas.
“Honey Boy” (3 stars)
Shia LaBeouf wrote this autobiographical piece about how child stardom can cause adult problems. LaBeouf also plays the star’s father, an overbearing showbiz failure whose protectiveness toward his son is matched by his envy over his success. It’s a terrific performance, and the best this about this uneven but compelling film. With Noah Jupe.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Opening Friday: Pacific Place, Seattle 10