Director Alma Har’el on the Therapeutic Nature of “Honey Boy”

Based on a true story written by Shia LaBeouf while in rehab, the film was both triggering and cathartic for the creative team.
Film + TV
Director Alma Har’el on the Therapeutic Nature of “Honey Boy”

Based on a true story written by Shia LaBeouf while in rehab, the film was both triggering and cathartic for the creative team.

Words: Carrie Courogen

image courtesy of Amazon Studios

October 29, 2019

The opening of Honey Boy prepares you for a disaster movie. It’s 2005, and a young man standing amidst an epic pileup of smoking wreckage is suddenly flung through the rubble. Then, the reveal: this is just a movie. Or rather, it’s just a movie-within-a-movie. Honey Boy, the movie you’re watching, is a disaster film, yes—but not like the grand scale Michael Bay films you might be used to. It’s instead a quieter story about the more personal and insidious ways disaster can creep up on a person through addiction, trauma, and fame.

All of it is based on a true story, written by Shia LaBeouf while in court-ordered rehab. LaBeouf’s autobiographical narrative bridges the past and the present, charting an actor named Otis’ early days of child stardom (played by Noah Jupe) against the troubles that plague him as a young adult (Lucas Hedges) when he’s got top billing and a knack for self-destruction. Connecting the two is the boy’s recovering addict father (LaBeouf, in a meta performance) and the indomitable presence he has, be it physically—in the cramped motel room they live out of in his childhood—or emotionally, in the lasting trauma and addictive behavior Otis harbors later in his own life.

In the hands of other directors, the urgency and intimacy of Honey Boy could ring self-indulgent or bitter. Under the collaborative stewardship of director Alma Har’el, however, it’s a tender and relentlessly truthful story, one she’s spent her whole life preparing to tell.

Har’el approaches the story with a potent culmination of forces: her own personal life as the child of an alcoholic, a decade spent making innovative, genre-bending documentaries (Bombay Beach, LoveTrue), music videos (for bands like Sigur Rós and Beirut), and commercials—all with the spirit of an advocate pushing for gender equality in filmmaking.

Har’el was the first person LaBeouf approached with his story, when it was still just a one-scene therapy exercise he was doing in rehab. Together, they created what is perhaps the most therapeutic disaster film in recent history, a complex depiction of not just a father-son relationship, but the bond between an addict parent and child, and all the ways that dynamic can elicit both harmony and discord. There are no monsters in Honey Boy, just people perpetuating a cycle of pain. 

We caught up with Alma Har’el to discuss the way her film came together, the importance of breaking a pattern of stereotypical, male-gaze storytelling, and how, by triggering those who worked on it, Honey Boy ultimately led to healing.

You and Shia have a history of collaboration that predates Honey Boy. How did you two get to know each other?  

We kind of met in 2011 after I made my first documentary film, Bombay Beach. It won the Tribeca Film Festival and got a release from Focus Features that ended up as a DVD, and he picked that up at Amoeba Records. He watched it and contacted me through my website. We met, we made a music video for Sigur Rós two weeks after that, and then he financed and executive-produced my second film. This was basically our third collaboration, but in between we’d always just been sending each other stuff. He sends me things and we kind of always give each other feedback on everything we do.

The first draft he sent you was originally a lot smaller, and only focused on young Otis and his dad at the motel. What about that spoke to you and compelled you to decide this should be a bigger cinematic project?

What really struck me right away is the fact that I’ve seen films about addiction and I’ve seen films about actors, but I haven’t seen a lot of films that, as a child of an alcoholic and somebody who lived with a lot of what you see in the script—there’s something to be said about that perspective and how little it’s shown. I thought the script really captured the dynamics that exist underneath a lot of those parenting experiences, how often the tables are flipped. Here, it’s very clear, because little Otis pays for his father and hires him to be his chaperone, so he’s his boss.

“I think that in cinema—and in general storytelling—we’ve all been brainwashed for decades by a single white male gaze that captures masculinity and its expectations in a way that perpetuates, more and more, a lack of compassion.”

Really, in a lot of those relationships between children of alcoholics, addicts, or parents who have suffered from mental illness or their own childhood traumas, what happens is that the child often has to become the parent, emotionally, and has to have a certain responsibility toward the parent that usually the child of a healthier family wouldn’t. That often shapes the child for life, and—I wouldn’t say robs him of his childhood, but—definitely gets him to perform as an older person. There’s almost an aspect of performance, because it is really impossible for a child, sometimes, at the age of eight or ten or twelve to be as mature as he has to be in order to sustain the relationship with the parent and support them. Because here it’s also a child actor, I thought that’s the perfect marriage of all those topics.

And, of course, the writing was incredibly unique and it seemed like Shia had written a character for himself, unknowingly, that he had prepared his entire life to act and to portray. All of those together really moved me, as well as the fact that Shia was at a point where nobody wanted to work with him and it seemed like it was the end of his career. I definitely thought that people have to know his story, and that was also a part of this. 

There’s a lot of compassion in this film for people who, to those without similar experiences, might not always appear to deserve it, based on their behavior. But Honey Boy treats them with generosity. What were the challenges in taking that approach and depicting the complexities of those relationships?

I think that in cinema—and in general storytelling—we’ve all been brainwashed for decades by a single white male gaze that captures masculinity and its expectations in a way that perpetuates, more and more, a lack of compassion and, more and more, expectations of men to behave in a certain way. Not to say that there weren’t incredible films done by men about men, but in the general mythological archetype of what is the masculine in our society, we definitely are exposed to a very simplistic idea of the masculine, and also the idea of love.

I was very passionate about showing different shades and different sides of that, which we don’t often see. I have experienced, in my life, love as a complicated thing that allows you to tap into everything inside of you that needs to be resolved or worked on or taken care of, and also as a more simple thing that comes out of two people meeting at the right time and being able to love each other because they have dealt with their pain and have forgiven those who have given it to them. Love is not one thing. I think that this story specifically allows us to look into what relationships are possible between parents and children, fathers and sons, but also anybody that is carrying pain or needs to forgive somebody in order to be free and in order to love again.

Cinematographer Natasha Braier with Alma Har’el on set of Honey Boy / photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

As cathartic as the film is, was it ever triggering to work on, or did you find it healing for you and Shia?

It was triggering to everybody involved. It was triggering, obviously, to Shia, but also to me and to a lot of people on set who come from similar backgrounds. I think that you can’t really enter the gates of trauma without expecting to be triggered and without expecting to go through some very difficult moments. I had definitely prepared for this film in many ways for years, and I think that one of the reasons I managed to come out of it healthier and more loving is because I was somewhat accepting of the pain that it also caused. But, yeah, anything you do that has therapeutic value sometimes wakes up the monsters of pain. 

“Anything you do that has therapeutic value sometimes wakes up the monsters of pain.”

But also what, for me, was really amazing, what made this film possible, was that at the same time it was very funny. The way Shia plays his father—there’s such an incredible amount of humor in it, and there’s a lot of love in it. And what Lucas Hedges and Noah and Byron Bowers, who plays some of the funniest scenes in the film in rehab with Lucas Hedges as his roommate, bring to this film, too, is a kind of levity and this idea that, really, there’s a lot of privilege to even be in court-ordered rehab. A lot of people never get that privilege and they get thrown right into jail. That combination of needing to dive into some of the more painful moments but also being able to laugh about them and see the meta aspects has been cool and kind of a way to deal with all this in a way that’s fairly entertaining.

That meta aspect of seeing Shia play his father reminds me of the way your documentaries do a similar dance between reality and fantasy. How did your work as a documentarian, and all of your work in the commercial space, inform how you approach something scripted like this? 

In my earlier work, my documentaries, I’ve definitely explored all aspects of what it is to capture truth and tell another person’s story. Not only in a way that’s creating a document and is attempting to be objective, but also one that taps into the subject and the feelings of living and existing in this world and having a connection to your body and saying things through movement that can’t be said in words. I think some things that I’ve been exploring both in Bombay Beach and in a lot of my music videos…there are moments in this movie that are very dreamy and physical that show parts of the story that can’t be told with just simple dialogue.

My work on commercials allows me to become extremely savvy with visual effects and sets that are complicated and have to be run very quickly. The ambitious notion of trying to do a Michael Bay shot to open the film—a budget like ours only allowed us to do it in one take. Being able to really do that and work with all the visual effects that we did definitely came from me doing commercials for a few years. I think everything you do, at the end of the day, goes into the work. 

As somebody that never had the money to go to film school, I’ve learned everything I know on sets, and I’ve been very, very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had and I work hard to make sure other people have the same opportunities, because I think that it’s much easier to come to your first scripted feature having some experiences like that in your pocket. FL 

We’re sponsoring free screenings of Honey Boy in eleven cities; for a full list of screening dates and locations and to grab your passes before they’re all gone, go here.