In ‘Honey Boy’, Shia Labeouf’s True Story of Abuse Made Me Question My Own Childhood

TW: This story references stories of abuse, sexual assault and drug use.

After a career as a child actor and as a transformers’ best friend (s/o Bumblebee), Shia LaBeouf turned to explore his own childhood trauma after being raised by an abusive Hollywood failure in Honey Boy

And, not only is it a lot, but it made me question my own childhood.

Directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy follows LaBeouf’s early career as a child actor under his father James Lort’s roof in a cheap hostel. Lort, who never made it into Hollywood, leeches off his son’s fame and success, emotionally and physically manipulating him to get what he wants. Throughout the film, his son begs him to stay and to be a proper dad, and he responds back with violence, anger and substance abuse.

Cutting back and forth between LaBeouf’s real life character as an adult in rehab therapy and the moments of his childhood that put him in there, it’s a powerful and jarring reminder that our childhood shapes how we see the world and ourselves. LaBeouf feels like he needs to be the best at everything, is afraid to be emotionally vulnerable and loses his cool easily, all behaviour it is implied he copied from his father. 

It’s even more powerfully conveyed in that Shia LaBeouf plays his own abusive dad in the movie, a decision he says made the film more therapeutic.

Not only is LaBeouf’s acting as his own father incredible and obviously cathartic, it has the added effect of making you question your own experiences and childhood. As LaBeouf looks so closely at his own upbringing, it’s almost impossible not to do the same to your own—regardless of whether or not there are any similarities. 

And because, you know, I love a little self-reflection, it’s what I found myself doing immediately.

As someone who recently moved back home after living away from home for a while and realised how much of my personality I get from my Mum (don’t worry, it’s nothing nearly as bad, we just talk A LOT, lol), it had me thinking: what would life be like if my Dad had been around as LaBeouf’s was?

When I was two months old, my dad passed away from a relapse. This meant that not only did I grow up without a father figure, but I was also too young to even have any memories of him or grieve. My Mum, who single handedly raised me like the incredible queen she is, would look at me and small things that I did or liked and was reminded of him, but couldn’t open up that can of pain and heartache. 

Until last year, when I began exploring more about who he was and that side of my family, I did a mini documentary for uni asking my mum and uncle (the only living member of my dad’s side of my family) who he and my grandparents were. 

What I discovered was a terrifying generation of abuse. According to them, my grandfather was a malicious man, tortured by what he had seen in the war and a heavy drinker. He may have invented his own cat-feeding machine (which if I could have the schematics for and get rich…  that’d be great thanks) but I soon learned he also physically abused my grandmother. Then, when my uncle left home, they did the same to my father. 

Despite that, my uncle and my mum both described my dad as an incredibly gifted and highly intellectual person. Someone who knew and liked to get under your skin. He played the bass guitar and toured internationally in his early 20s. But he also inherited behaviour from his parents. 

When I asked my mum what life would be like if he survived, she seemed unsure. In some ways, he might have changed and gotten better (and he apparently was on that path), but she was also afraid they would split and I would’ve grown up in a more complicated upbringing. 

Sitting in that theatre watching Honey Boy, I was struck with a thought: I’m glad I didn’t have that happen.

There’s a moment in Honey Boy, where Otis (young LaBeouf’s pseudonym) is on the phone to his mum. It’s the only time you hear from her, after her partner and decent well rounded guy Tom drops off Otis from a baseball game and is threatened by his Dad to “never be near his son ever again,” and with good reason. Lort refuses to speak to Otis’ mum, but as they use Otis as a facilitator to send messages to each other, it becomes an abusive and savage take on the old line “tell x I don’t want to talk to them,” when they’re right there. The conversation ends with Otis repeating his mum, “you’re not the one who had to jump out of a moving car because they were going to get fucking raped.”

See? I wasn’t kidding when I said it was a lot.

Throughout the entire movie, this was the scene that took me out of the cinema and completely out of the story. Like all good movies, most scenes in it had elements that made me think of my own life, but this one was particularly personal.

The scene that made me terrified at the idea of if my Dad was alive, if I had the chance to have him in my life, that this could have been a reality for me too. 

Hearing how my uncle talked about my dad, I don’t know if he would’ve directly been an abusive person, but I can’t deny that what he experienced and had to go through as a child and teen wouldn’t had shaped his own parenting like Lort shaped his, the same way my own childhood shaped me. 

“[Your father] Paul grew up in a household that was often conflict-ridden,” my uncle reminded me, “there was a lot of conflict between our parents.. .a lot of arguing and fighting and alcoholism. I think it made it very difficult for us as children growing up in that kind of environment because it was extremely hostile.”

“Paul being younger was kinda trapped [in that house]. He didn’t have a car and he didn’t have his license so he rebelled,” which as my uncle continued, gave him an “extremely complex and very volatile” character and yet “an extremely creative person.”

“If he hadn’t been impacted by drugs then his life, and your life and your mum’s life would’ve been quite different.”

Halfway through the film, after we see young LaBeouf cry his heart out and beg his Dad to be a real father to him, his adult self tells his therapist, “I don’t understand why we’re talking about my dad, he’s not why I’m here.” 

But I disagree. I think the elements of myself—like the fact I don’t know how to stop talking and be cool with silence or struggle to suppress my emotions—that came from my mum, could have just as easily been balanced out by traits that I might have inherited from my dad. Would I have been more calculative and neurotic in how I planned things and ask questions to get under people’s skin? Would I be able to play the bass guitar or grow a fondness for playing music rather than just performing at karaoke?

No matter who you are or what kind of childhood you had, I think your parents are why you are the way you are: why you laugh that way, why you frantically try to unload the dishwasher at 5:45pm because you can already hear the key in the door and oh god…

There have been plenty of people saying Honey Boy is therapeutic for LaBeouf and others who’ve suffered abuse (and tbh, that’s valid). But, I also think even if you haven’t experienced it, it’s an important film to understand what it is like to be in that situation. 

And, for me, it made me question what my life would have been like if my childhood was a little different, if it went down the path it was so close to. 

It made me wonder if things would have changed. If I would have changed. If I might have found myself in the same situations, asking myself the same questions. 

In a way, it’s as Otis’ father tells him when he’s a kid in one of the film’s closing scenes, “a seed has to destroy itself to become a flower. It’s a violent act.

If you want to relive some trauma and see potentially one of the best films of the year, Honey Boy is currently screening in selected theatres. Just make sure to bring some tissues or a friend. Legit.

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence or abuse and need support or help, please contact 1800RESPECT. If you feel your life is in danger, please contact 000.

Julian Rizzo-Smith is a writer and producer. He also claims to be a vine historian, avid connoisseur of low-fi beats, indie hip hop and Kermit memes. In a perfect world, he’d be married to Tyler the Creator, own an Arcanine and a Lapras, and don his own Sailor Scouts uniform. He tweets @GayWeebDisaster, which is also, coincidentally, how one might describe him.

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