Poetic documentarian Alma Har’el discusses her first fiction feature, Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical exploration of his childhood trauma.
I was first introduced to Alma Har’el’s work with the dreamlike documentary LoveTrue in which three Americans’ search for love is chronicled through both observational footage and surreal, neon-drenched recreations and tableaus. A profoundly emotional and empathetic film, it marked Har’el in my mind as a leading voice in creative nonfiction. Suffice to say, I was surprised and intrigued when her latest project was announced: Honey Boy, Har’el’s fiction debut, is an autobiographical film penned by Hollywood star Shia LaBeouf, detailing his traumatic relationship with his father (played by LaBeouf) when he was a child actor.
Har’el’s experimental sensibilities, which developed during her time as a boundary-breaking documentarian, certainly lend a lot to this autobiographical story. “I was really excited to go from [documentary to fiction] because I feel like I always blur the lines,” Har’el told us at the London Film Festival. “I don’t treat either of these genres as a set of rules you have to obey. Before, I was doing explorations of what a documentary means, and here, it was an attempt at exploring what a scripted film could do.”
Honey Boy avoids the trappings of kitchen-sink realism by blending a handheld documentary style with moments of surrealism. Often, the most surreal sequences take place on film sets where 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe, a LaBeouf stand-in) is shooting, or the film sets that the older Otis (Lucas Hedges) works on. It heightens the stark difference between the glamorous Hollywood world Otis works in and the poverty and abuse of his home life, living in a motel with his alcoholic father.
One of the most striking aesthetic choices in the film are a series of sequences in which father and son commute on a motorbike, often shot at magic hour and beautifully scored by Alex Somers. These are some of the calmest, loveliest sequences in a film populated with harrowing exchanges: it’s the only time when Otis is allowed to show physical affection to his father by holding onto him. Because they don’t talk on the bike, there’s no chance for them to harm each other with insults and accusations.
“It came from talking to Shia about the fact that his father never really hugged him,” Har’el explained. “[His father] was super conscious because he was a felon and had been a sex offender as a result of what happened to him in one of his blackouts. He was in jail for three-and-a-half years, and when he came out, he was very aware when he was in public with his son to never touch him, because he was afraid. The only time Shia would really get to hug his father was when they were riding a bike back from the studio or to the studio. Those moments were actually when he felt closest to him physically and bonded with him.”
Despite her innovations with style, Har’el was committed to emotional realism and accurately representing LaBeouf’s childhood trauma. Similar to another semi-autobiographical film from earlier this year, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, in which Hogg tried to exactly replicate her ‘80s London flat, Har’el recreated LaBeouf’s childhood motel home to the best of her ability. “Me and my incredible production designer, Jc Molina, and Natalie O’Brien, the costume designer, were working with a lot of real photos of [LaBeouf’s] father and of the motel they lived in, trying to recreate a lot of details. It was very close to reality. In the title sequence at the end, you can see he [original] photos. You can tell how much recreation was done.”
“It was very important for me to capture the right socio-economic background that Shia was growing up in,” Har’el continued when speaking on the reasons she wanted to recreate the motel so accurately. “What the motel looked like, the texture of it, and the fact that it feels at the edge of town. Even though it’s in Los Angeles, it’s outside the reality of most people. There’s an otherworldliness that you get sometimes from stepping into parts of society that are not really being taken care of. That’s what’s stuck out to me.”
At the centre of the film are a trio of excellent performances: Lucas Hedges plays Otis at 22, in rehab, processing the trauma of his childhood; Jupe continues to be one of the most impressive child actors of his generation, after being the only good thing in Suburbicon and standing out in Wonder; and LaBeouf gives one of his most moving performances to date. “Noah and Shia worked for a month and a half before and hung out almost every day,” Har’el said of the rehearsal process. “They juggled, played magic, and read through the scenes. They had a big history when they came to [film]. They already had a big relationship.”
Although Hedges and Jupe never appear on screen together, it was important to Har’el that they develop a shared physical language. “We did a lot of physical work with [Noah and Lucas] together, so they have some physical moments and behaviours that match. They did a lot of work together.” After all, Jupe plays the beginnings of trauma and Hedges playsg the long-lasting physical effects of that trauma — there’s immense tension in the frame of this angry young adult. Hedges moves with a kind of painful-looking tautness that seems the product of resentment and psychological damage left to fester untreated for over a decade.