Premiering his personal pseudo-memoir “Honey Boy” to a standing ovation Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, Shia LaBeouf took the stage to cheers from the audience, revealing that the project began as part of his therapy while in rehab.
“It’s strange to fetishize your pain and make a product out of it,” admitted LaBeouf during the post-screening Q&A. “Then you feel guilty about that because it felt very selfish.”
According to LaBeouf, the writing that eventually turned into “Honey Boy” grew out of his 12-step program. “I never went into this thinking, ‘I’m going to help people.’ That wasn’t my goal,” he said. “I was falling apart.”
In “Honey Boy,” LaBeouf confronts the demons that have chased the screen star through career ups and downs with brutal honesty, placing many of his own publicly documented missteps — the 2008 car accident, the arrests, the inebriated rantings and court-mandated rehab — under the microscope.
Lucas Hedges plays a version of LaBeouf (named Otis in the film) in his early 20s, a rising star of action blockbusters whose energy is fueled by a destructive undercurrent of angst and anger. Only in therapy does he begin to process the repressed traumas of a difficult childhood spent under the care of his addict father.
But most of the film rests on the preternaturally mature shoulders of 13-year-old “A Quiet Place” actor Noah Jupe, who turns in a stunningly sensitive lead performance as the young preteen Otis.
In an act that seems at once self-reflective and self-punishing, LaBeouf plays his own mercurial father. “Previous to this, me and my father hadn’t spoken in six, seven years,” said LaBeouf, who attended Sundance with his mother. “We’re talking now. I talked to him before I came here.”
“It’s been a nerve-racking night for Shia,” said Har’el, best known for 2011’s award-winning “Bombay Beach,” who makes her powerful narrative directing debut in “Honey Boy.”
Jupe, who called LaBeouf “my best friend,” described how the bond the two formed helped him portray Otis’ emotional distress onscreen.
“Because he was so close off-set, on-set when he was being distant from me, I really felt it,” he said. “In the scenes, I wanted him to come give me a hug, I wanted to talk to him, but I couldn’t. And that really helped me channel the emotion.”
LaBeouf said he leaned on Jupe during the difficult shoot, which began after he completed rehab. “He softened me. I’d come in with all of my problems that were going on at the time, which were a lot,” said LaBeouf. “He never was a kid to me, he was always my contemporary, my equal.”
The premiere left the cavernous 1,200 capacity Eccles Theater in a state of palpable emotion, no one quite as misty-eyed as director Har’el, who took a beat onstage hand in hand with Jupe before calling up cast and crew including fka Twigs, Clifton Collins, Byron Bowers and Martin Starr.
“When you make a documentary you really go through a lot with people,” she said, “because they’re not actors, and as they make it they realize what they’re going through and that they’re about to expose themselves in a certain way that might change their lives. And Shia was going through something very similar.”