Fathers, Nightmare Clowns, and a Pity Still More Vast

Reflections on Shia LeBeouf’s Honey Boy

Sam Guthrie / 3.4.20

Shia LeBeouf wrote Honey Boy during rehab in 2017. The screenplay unearths the damage of a troubled childhood and his riven relationship with an abusive father. Complexifying this quasi-biopic, LeBeouf plays the role of his father, fictionally named James Lort. Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe split time as his son Otis, the grown and adolescent representations of Shia. 

The film opens on an action movie set. Twenty-something Otis is strapped into a harness that violently yanks him out of the frame as an explosion erupts. After the cut, Otis returns to his dressing room and struggles to remove the straight jacket of a harness. His inability to do so leads to a violent outburst, drinking binge, and a spiraling, splicing montage of poor decisions that leaves him in the back of a police car on his way to another stint in rehab. The first flashback to Otis’s childhood also has him strapped into a harness, this time performing a more innocuous stunt as a child movie star. Yet the straightjacket of a harness causes similar discomfort; the distress magnified by his father’s ignoring his request to remove the binding contraption. 

Each instance of neglect opens Otis’s festering wounds. The searing hot prod of PTSD repeatedly presses against his heart even into adulthood. In therapy, what is meant to be healing is a blatant battle with lurking demons: he rehab center’s pool and close sleeping quarters triggers nasty memories of his youth with his father.

Viewers often see a disconnect between what’s needed and what’s received. When Otis needs a hug, he gets a slap, a kind word is replaced with a curse, a sweet treat substituted for a cigarette. Clear opportunities for James to build up his son are exactly when he tears him down with crude jokes, ridicule, and shame. One of the most painful examples comes when James refuses to hold his son’s hand in public, afraid of how he may be perceived. 

What may not seem as overt is that the shackling and straight jacket that trap Otis are also custom-fitted for Otis’s father James. His poor decisions are a result of a life steeped in deep and toxic shame. James is a recovering alcoholic with an ugly divorce and a criminal record in his past. He is constantly stifling and entangling his son. LaBeouf’s portrayal shows him honestly wrestling with a father he loves but doesn’t understand. I found my heart fuming and broken for James, a result of Shia showing that the father of his youth was a complex man who felt as much pain as he caused. Scenes in the rundown motel, hazy Los Angeles shots from the back of his dad’s motorcycle, the pool where Shia found relief after a long day’s work burst with a mixture of nostalgia, grief, and pain. Like the saddest game of show-and-tell, Shia walks us through the storms of his youth as he plays the man who inflicted the pain.

Shia’s retelling of his life takes audiences deep into the fissures of this pain. Director Alma Har’el shows this subtly in Otis’s rehab task: cleaning the chicken coops. The chore is symbolic of his father’s short stint as a circus clown whose signature trick involved a chicken. With each shovel-full of chicken waste, Otis is sorting through and examining his harbored pain.

One of the deepest cracks comes at the end of the film, when Otis appears in rehab again. After heartbreaking flashbacks and a therapy session that unravels, the penultimate scene in the film shows adult Otis coming in contact with his father. In the dream-like sequence, shades of damp neon paint a foreboding light as Otis approaches the one-room motel he knew as a child. From it, his father emerges dressed as the clown from his circus days. Despite all the warning signs, Shia moves towards the clown in the belly of his nightmare. And in the vacant space between odd and frightening, a seed of hope buds in their embrace.

Some may see Shia’s project as another attempt at something overly clever and meta. And while there may be traces of that, the film is also a keyhole into the childhood of a broken man being nursed back to life. He chooses to fight his pain by giving it up, confronting and hugging a clown in a nightmare. I hope and pray that Shia and those who resonate specifically with his story continue on the road to recovery. A prayer deeper still is that we’d know the God who actually sent his Son into each one of our unique nightmares and takes each ghoul and ghost, each unnerving clown, and wraps them up in a pity still more vast. A God who gathers each drop of pain, both caused and endured, and swallows it on the cross. Who doesn’t settle with simply an embrace, but an exodus from our dungeons of darkness into newness of life. 

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