All the credit in the world to Shia LaBeouf - there's a phrase that makes me feel unwell just typing it out - for how unfathomably hard it must have been to write and then act in Honey Boy. The film is a barely-disguised autobiography drawing a bright, bold line from LaBeouf's years as a child actor to his out-of-control drunken run-ins with the law as the well-paid star of the Transformers films; it places LaBeouf himself into the role of his father, a rodeo clown-turned-manager whose relationship with his son veered at insane speeds from loving adoration and protection to authoritarian screaming to vicious, cutting passive-aggression. It is a raw script, written as part of LaBeouf's time in rehab (something that the film's fake LaBeouf, played by Lucas Hedges, also does), and it has the unmistakable aura of therapy around it, in its attempt to articulate inchoate emotions and present an honest accounting of one's own strengths and flaws. It has the lacerating truth of close observation, depicting the way that two humans work in the kind of fine detail that comes from an unpleasant surplus of intimacy.

Clearly, for its author, getting this story expunged from his body was a deeply necessary process. I have a hard time imagining that it could be as necessary for any other person in the world to watch it as it was for LaBeouf to write it. Whether or not this incarnation of this story is particularly precise or personal, the fact remains that it is a story that has been told more than a few times throughout the last couple of decades, if not with these exact details. "Father pours all of his resentments and shortcomings into his son; son turns into a embittered loner who can't heal until he precisely identifies what his father didn't give him" passed into the realm of cliché a long time ago, and the knowledge that LaBeouf is sharing his therapeutic work with us only does so much to freshen it up. And I know this is a slightly horrible thing to say about someone's actual real-life experiences, but once that someone has agreed to translate those experiences into a cinematic narrative object, it's fair game.

Granting all of that, if we are to have clichés, we can at least have them done well. Honey Boy is two-thirds of a phenomenal acting showcase; the majority of the story, taking place in 1995, centers on Otis (Noah Jupe), the LaBeouf stand-in, who at 12 years old has more money than he knows what to do with, and a divorced father, James, who has decided, thanks to his years as a rodeo clown, that he knows the industry well enough to keep his son safe from predation. And the nasty, tricky thing about Honey Boy is that James isn't wrong. The easy ways to approach this material would be to suggest that he's a self-loathing failure, living his dreams through his put-upon child; or merely that he's a greedy asshole doing everything in his power to keep his golden goose laying eggs. James isn't really either of those; it would be hard to put into words what he is, really. A control freak, definitely; someone who deals with his own lack of responsibility by creating an unlivable moral code that his son must abide by. And this seems to be born out of a real desire to protect Otis and see him thrive. It's just that in James's corroded brain, this fatherly love comes out as something cruel and twisted. It's a strange collection of impulses, and LaBeouf plays them terribly well; it's almost without question the best performance of his career, though I say this as somebody without a huge level of enthusiasm for anything he's ever done. Still, when somebody's good, they're good, and LaBeouf is damn good here: he has nailed the bellicose showmanship of a man who's always turned on for an audience without realising he's doing it, a man who comes from the gutter and slightly rich people even when he, in a certain technical sense, is one now.

The pair of this big, loud, messy performance with Jupe's silent seething makes the 1995 material feel legitimately edgy, a portrait of two strong personalities in constant tension, with the arc of the story consisting of how the young Otis final loses his patience and demands some respect from his father, or at least finds the will to tell him to fuck off. Jupe has been racking up credits at an astonishing rate for the last couple of years - Honey Boy is one of two films released in November 2019 to feature him, along with Ford v Ferrari - and this it the moment that he's proven himself: there's a level of acidity and toxicity coiled up inside of Otis that would demand a lot from any actor, let alone a child, and Jupe doesn't even let us see him do the work. It just oozes out of his expressions and tone of voice. And both performers benefit from LaBeouf's unerringly detailed screenplay, one that allows its moments to swamp its overall flow, perhaps, but which draws all of those moments out in the excruciating precision of painfully sharp memories (an especially fine moment: Otis acts as the go-between on a phone call between his warring parents, and delivers their words in their own snarling tones of voice, switching between two different forms of anger with little flickers of the neutral, scared boy in between).

The other third-or-a-bit-more of the film, set in 2005 with Otis's stint in rehab, is a whole lot less interesting, and not only because rehab dramas are even more formulaic and overdone than daddy issues dramas. Hedges, who came out of basically nowhere in 2016, just a year before Jupe, has been racking credits up pretty fast himself, and in the process allowed us all to get a good long look at his shortcuts and acting tics; Honey Boy allows him to indulge just about all of them. It's an overly-theatrical performance of a version of the character that already seems a bit more smeary in the writing than the merciless precision on display in the 1995 material, and maybe that's the point. Otis in rehab is a bit of a diffuse figure, running from his own personality and all of that, and maybe the fuzziness of his characterisation is meant to feel uncomfortable. But it mostly just feels uninteresting. And without a strong personality to play against, all Hedges gets to do is take us through a laundry list of rehab and therapy clichés, noteworthy only in that they are played more for hostility than weeping.

So, that's a large minority of the film that's basically just not very compelling, except insofar as that it all kind of played out in our own real-world celebrity news media, and so there's a mild car-crash appeal to seeing it from the inside. The 1995 scenes, though, there's a movie there: one directed with unrelenting immediacy by Alma Har'el, making her first feature, who relies on the usual indie bag of tricks - handheld, close-ups, lots of awkward pauses, busy, dirty mise en scène - but at least executes those tricks with real force. And it's mostly in 1995 that we get the best work from cinematographer Natasha Breier, a low-key genius (she shot both 2014's The Rover and 2016's The Neon Demon, two of my favorite-looking films of the 2010s), who manages to capture the luxurious oranges and yellows of golden hour, and make them look sickly and oppressive and hot, while still caking them in a veil of painterly nostalgia. I'm not sure how one goes about making something look both beautiful and putrid at the same time, but it's present in a huge amount of Honey Boy; it's also a fair metaphor for the film as a whole, which basically works as an act of reminiscence from which all the pleasure has been stripped bare. It's a lot of caustic movie, and I don't know that it adds up to all that much, but it's definitely doing something, raw and vital and unnerving.

Check out Catherine's blog post, where she goes into more detail about the film's therapeutic and biographical elements