iPic Fulton Market hosted a special screening of Honey Boy on Tuesday evening, followed by a Q&A with the director Alma Har’el, screenwriter/star Shia LaBeouf, and co-star Byron Bowers.
The film, part biopic, part documentary, and part “cinematic therapy,” follows LaBeouf – represented onscreen as the character of Otis Lort – and his troubled relationship with his addict father. We flip between Otis as a 12 year old child actor (Noah Jupe) living in a motel with his father (Shia LaBeouf), and Otis as a young man (Lucas Hedges) in court-ordered rehab after one too many drunken altercations with the police. LaBeouf wrote the beginnings of the screenplay while in rehab himself, eventually taking it to Israeli director and friend Alma Har’el. What emerges is a story of trauma and reconciliation that feels, at times, more honest than real life.
After the film, Har’el, Bowers, and LaBeouf took their seats at the front of the theater facing the audience for a brief moderated panel discussion. They instinctively moved their seats closer together.
“We’re so far apart.” someone remarked, tongue-in-cheek.
The conversation opened with questions about the film’s beginnings with Har’el and the decision to cast LaBeouf as his father.
“When I got the script, it really fucked me up, you know? To see the inside of his story and the way he wrote it from inside,” Har’el said of her first impressions of the script. “He sent it to me with two photos from a court-ordered rehab/mental home for the brave…that are now in the end credits of him and his dad. I literally just started crying looking at those photos and seeing him as a child and how little he was when all of that took place.”
Har’el ultimately made the decision to cast LaBeouf as his father, Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf – represented as James Lort in the film.
“I was out the game. I wasn’t acting really. I was going to join the Peace Corps, you know, I was quite nuclear at this time,” said LaBeouf, hunched in his seat, voice low. “I was just going to write it and give it to Alma but then she said, ‘I’m not gonna do this unless you play your dad.’”
Har’el identified strongly with the LaBeouf’s story and understood its universality. She spoke about her vision for Honey Boy.
“Children that grew up with any trauma, or really any person in their 20s that’s trying to find out why they’re fucked up, there’s this period of either going to therapy or being in a lot of bad relationships or whatever it is that happens to you in those years. You become a detective of ‘What happened? Why am I like this? I have this memory, is this what it is?’ It’s this going backwards and I wanted to capture that.”
The moderator wondered out loud about the main conflict many viewers are likely to have watching Honey Boy: “I felt scared for Otis, but at the same time I kind of liked James.”
“He’s a lovable character,” LaBeouf agreed. “Just a little crooked, but he’s very lovable.”
When pressed about how he made peace with his father’s abusive acts, LaBeouf shifted the question’s scope beyond himself, launching a discussion about forgiveness and the privilege of mental health awareness.
“I had it better than he had it,” he said, looking up. “I used to victimize myself a lot, oh woe is me, but…we all have our thing. I’m sure there’s people here who had it worse than what they saw.”
“You can see the pain that James went through,” agreed Bowers, who portrays Otis’ rehab roommate, Percy. “Generationally, you see that in the hood. Your OG is 23 – the person that gave you life, telling you about it, you don’t know it at the time, but he’s only a few years older than you. That’s the stuff that’s being handed down. Those few slaps you saw, I mean, yeah, there’s people that got it worse than that, but you see the human side. That’s a real parent in that generation.”
“We live in a time where it’s very important to have accountability and awareness,” said Har’el “But it’s important to look into humanity’s eyes. Humanity is not just good or bad and people are not just good or bad. A lot of us grow up with parents that have gone through a lot of their own pain and have done things that some of them wish they didn’t do.” Har’el addressed the moderator, occasionally sweeping the audience with her heavy-lidded gaze. “Every one of us has a grudge, and you have to put that over if you want to live, if you want to be free again, if you want to love again, you have to forgive, and you have to develop empathy for people that caused you pain.”
Bowers pushed further: “It wasn’t called abuse in our parents’ age. For a lot of out here, we are the first generation with self-help, that get to actually get out of survival mode and get to look in and say we can cry and do these things. And then we try to go back and tell our parents to do these things. It’s a blessing that you see our evolution as a species, that we can do these things.”
As the conversation wrapped up, LaBeouf expressed his primary feelings about Honey Boy. Gratitude. Even healing.
“A lot of reparations happened between me and my father that probably wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t motivated to make this. I didn’t do this on some altruistic kick. I learned a lot about myself in the process, I learned a lot about my father in the process. It softened. A lot of good things came.”
The film, which won the Hollywood Film Award for Breakthrough Screenwriter, and the Sundance Dramatic Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft, opens November 8th at select theaters. Check out the trailer in the meantime: