The Semi-Autobiographical ‘Honey Boy’ Puts Shia LaBeouf’s Decades-in-Coming Therapy on the Big Screen

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs, Maika Monroe, Martin Starr, Natasha Lyonne (but only on the phone)

Director: Alma Har’el

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for A Dad and a Young Son Using Way Too Much Profanity with Each Other

Release Date: November 8, 2019 (Limited)

Honey Boy is an almost-biopic, based on Shia LaBeouf’s preteen days as a child actor with a pushy, erratic father. I had not read any synopsis ahead of time, so I was unaware of this fact until the credits started to roll, so for me it was a nice little bonus that put everything into clearer focus. And we needed that perspective, because it’s exhausting to spend so much time in a motel with Shia stand-in Otis Lort (Noah Jupe) being emotionally abused the same way over and over by his balding, pot-bellied father James (LaBeouf doing a riff on his own dad). At least the rehab scenes with an older Otis (Lucas Hedges) offer some opportunities for a breakthrough. A particular highlight is his tête-à-tête with an as-stone-faced-as-usual Martin Starr about the nature of acting and sincerity (Otis, and presumably the real Shia, believes that day-to-day-living is just another form of acting).

While I found much of Honey Boy too unpleasant to fully embrace, its nakedly autobiographical nature is fascinating. It reminded me in particular of the Community Season 1 episode “Introduction to Film,” wherein aspiring filmmaker Abed makes a short documentary-fiction hybrid in which he covertly casts his friends as his divorced parents. Its experimental nature flat-out confounds his study buddies, but it leaves his usually cold father in a puddle of tears. So similarly, while I found Honey Boy off-putting, I can imagine that for LaBeouf and those close to him, this is exactly the sort of therapy they need. When he shows it to his dad, maybe it will prove to be the spark that leads to their relationship being healthier than it’s ever been.

Honey Boy is Recommended If You Like: Artists working through their familial demons in their art, That time when Shia LaBeouf watched his own movies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Cheap Motels

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ben is Back’ Mixes Familial Addiction Crisis with Suburban Thriller

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CREDIT: Mark Schafer/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton

Director: Peter Hedges

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for The Profanity of Familial Frustration and Some Drug Use

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

Ben is Back reminds me quite a bit of Good Time, despite the two being wildly different in tone and purpose. But their narrative structures and momentum match up strikingly. Both are about all-night attempts to retrieve a beloved family member, with secrets, subterfuge, and drug use along the way. It just goes to show you that when it gets right down to it, outer borough dwellers who resort to crime aren’t all that different from upstate suburban families.

Where Good Time was about Robert Pattinson springing his brother out of jail after a botched robbery, Ben is Back follows Holly Burns (Julia Roberts) and her son Ben (Lucas Hedges) as they track down the beloved family dog in the wake of Ben’s history of bad decisions catching up with him. Ben has just unexpectedly showed up at home from rehab on Christmas Eve, and he promises that he is making an honest effort to stay clean. But then someone comes to collect a debt by kidnapping the dog, and the temptations to relapse shoot up exponentially.

Movies with premises like Ben is Back‘s tend to make a double-edged promise to their audience: they feature tremendous, heartfelt acting and have thoughtful and open-minded things to say about the opioid crisis, but they are also stressful and depressing viewing experiences. Beautiful Boy is a prime recent example that was overwhelming in its anxiety. But Ben is Back bypasses that disquiet, or at least sets it aside for the moment, with the urgency of its plotting. It makes for a cinematic experience that is not exactly fun, but certainly thrilling. And it’s not like it avoids the hard questions. Indeed, the matters of whether or not Holly can ever trust Ben, and how much his brain is even in control of how much he can be trustworthy, are brought into sharp relief by the occasion of finding the dog. This is what the opioid crisis looks like during the holidays for one family – there might be enough hope for them to make it through.

Ben is Back is Recommended If You Like: Good Time but if it were about the opioid crisis

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Relapses

This Is a Movie: Lucas Hedges Wades Through the Lies of Gay Conversion to Find Truth and Love in the Unsettling and Fulfilling ‘Boy Erased’

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Troye Sivan, Xavier Dolan, Joe Alwyn, Flea

Director: Joel Edgerton

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Intense, Sexuality-Focused Material

Release Date: November 2, 2018 (Limited)

Boy Erased demonstrates the dangers of putting the unqualified in charge, or pretending that it is possible to be qualified for something that nobody can possibly have experience with. With the suspensefully assured hand of director Joel Edgerton, it plays like a horror film in which the villain is the storm of forces that try to convince you of something that you know in your core not to be true. The setting is a gay conversion therapy program, which is basically the epitome of trauma born out of the most distorted of good intentions. Every story I have ever heard about gay conversion suggests that those involved with running them are either gay themselves or relatives of gay people. Boy Erased very much underscores how terrifying a curriculum designed upon internalized homophobia is.

The film is based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, with Lucas Hedges playing Jared Eamons, an adapted version of Conley. This isn’t the first gay conversion gay conversion-focused film this year, with The Miseducation of Cameron Post having arrived a few months earlier. Boy Erased manages to make a stronger impression thanks to heavier dramatic stakes. Whereas Cameron Post‘s protagonists were so strong-willed that they just ignored the program, Jared actually cares about satisfying the people who want him to go through with it. That especially includes his Baptist preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his fiercely protective mother Nancy (Nicole Kidman). But at a certain point, he realizes that the so-called adult experts do not know what they are talking about if what they are asking him to do is ripping apart his soul. That means he must push back against head therapist Victor (Edgerton), a man who is frighteningly skilled at hiding internal conflict, and instead listen to the people who only offer him unconditional, recognizable love. It all leads to reconciliation scenes that you hope never have to be necessary for anybody but are all the more fulfilling for how genuine they are.

Boy Erased is Recommended If You Like: Heart-wrenching true stories, Familial reconciliation, Dramas that are secretly horror movies

Grade: 4 out of 5 White Dress Shirts

This Is a Movie Review: Seeking Justice for a Cold Rape/Murder Case, ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is the Timeliest Dark Comedy of 2017

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CREDIT: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Željko Ivanek, Kathryn Newton

Director: Martin McDonagh

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Constant Cussing, Police Abuse, and Arson

Release Date: November 10, 2017 (Limited)

The release of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri could not be any more timely. We are currently living in a moment unprecedented in terms of the rate at which prominent sexual harassers and abusers are being exposed. By putting up the titular billboard triptych calling out local law enforcement for its inability to solve the case of her daughter’s rape and murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is instantly a symbol of this age. Unsurprisingly, she butts up against a fair deal of racism within the Ebbing police department. But that discrimination isn’t coming from Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who, though he may be a bit hard-edged, is absolutely well-meaning; he so wishes he had physical evidence in the Hayes case. And the racist officer in question might actually have some good detective in him and maybe even some decent humanity.

Based on his track record, writer/director Martin McDonagh is not an obvious choice to stick the sensitive landing that Three Billboards pulls off. With In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, he demonstrated his knack for understanding the foibles of humanity, especially when it comes to souls existentially cast adrift by the whims of fate. Such an approach would not be impossible for a film about an unsolved rape case, but it would be depressing. While McDonagh can be cutting, he is so for the laughs. It is not his bag to make his audience endlessly despair. Thus, while Three Billboards does feature plenty of his signature jabs, he ultimately re-calibrates his typical tone enough to make this effort truly uplifting.

The most astute trick that McDonagh pulls off involves the constant acknowledgement that individuals contain multitudes and are not easy to pin down, even in a story driven by something so obviously wrong as rape. Mildred’s crusade is righteous, but plenty of townspeople wish she would just go away. While much of that has to do with a tendency to defend the status quo, it is also due to her own prickly personality. But to be fair to her (and the movie certainly is), not many people have figured out how to insist upon justice while remaining kind. Willoughby receives the brunt of Mildred’s ire, and while he can be too heated for his own good, he knows what’s right. And because this movie is so generous to its characters, he has his own terminal cancer-fueled narrative. Also coming in hot is Mildred’s relationship with her ex-husband (John Hawkes), which turns especially nasty when it comes to his new much younger girlfriend (Samara Weaving). But it turns out that he is with her less because she is a pretty young thing and more because she has instilled in him a Zen calm, noting that anger only begets more anger.
The evolution of Officer Jason Dixon illustrates that proposition best of all. On the page, his transformation might read as too transformational to be believed, even with a writer as skilled as McDonagh. But thanks to the chops of Sam Rockwell, his redemptive arc reads as perfectly natural. When we meet him, Dixon is frequently drunk, openly racist, and constantly abusing his power. But when relieved of his badge, he finds room to make amends, ultimately teaming up with Mildred to fulfill his duty as a decent person. In a world where evil acts continue to be perpetrated, it is nice to know that humanity can persist.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Recommended If You Like: Fargo, M*A*S*H, Groundhog Day

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Fat Dentists

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lady Bird’ Will Speak Volumes to Anyone Who Went to Catholic High School in the Early 2000s, or Anyone Who Was Ever a Teenager at Any Time

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CREDIT: Merie Wallace/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Laura Marano, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Brief Pornographic Images, But Otherwise It Should Be PG-13 for Teens Being Teens

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)

It makes sense that much of Lady Bird takes place in a Catholic school, as both the Church and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut strongly advocate for the inherent dignity of the individual human being. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by “Lady Bird” (which still counts as a given name because she gave it to herself), is a high school senior in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California,” as she puts it) in 2002 (according to her, the most exciting thing about that year is that it is a palindrome) who dreams of escaping to a liberal arts college on the East Coast, despite her thoroughly average academic résumé. There is a hint that she is an underachiever (an offhand comment notes that her SAT scores are surprisingly high), but no matter the why of her being in the middle, her life struggle is still compelling. It is not so much that she has a particularly unusual personality or worldview by teenage millennial standards; she doesn’t really. Rather, she is worth paying attention to because someone bothered to tell her story.

The most filling narrative meat involves Lady Bird’s interactions with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Anyone who has had constant drag-out cutting fights with their own mother despite both sides wanting to get along will recognize this impasse. Metcalf is an expert at navigating the fluid dynamics of parent/child relationships, while Ronan is heartbreaking as she attempts to reconcile forging her own identity with pleasing the people she cares about. And let’s not sleep on Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s dad Larry, her quiet ally making his own way through job insecurity and depression. His is a notably un-showy performance surrounded by a couple of demonstrative women, but his quiet embodiment of personal dignity still comes through loud and clear.

For a 90-minute film, Lady Bird has a remarkably deep bench, but that is just natural for a film that values dignity so highly. As Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein could have easily been the wacky sidekick, but instead she’s a supportive, goofy pal who also has her own stuff going on. Lucas Hedges slots in nicely as the first boyfriend who turns out to be closeted – his story is familiar, but deeply felt. We do not see as much of Timothée Chalamet and Odeya Rush as an alternate love interest and the popular girl, respectively, but we get enough that their characterizations go beyond “Strokes-esque rocker boy” and “airhead in advanced placement classes.” All the kids speak in the faux-profundity typical of adolescence (“very baller” is spouted in the same breath as “very anarchist), a touch that is both mocking and respectful, taking these kids to task but also treating them honestly. And special mention must also be made of Lois Smith as a nun who loves a good prank, surprisingly enough.

Gerwig fills in this world with a lot of well-observed details that give a natural sheen to post-9/11 American reality. Lady Bird rebukes a classmate for being “Republican” when bringing up concerns about terrorism in New York. The soundtrack draws from five years earlier more so than it does the hits of 2002, recognizing the eclectic nature of Gen Y (that has only grown more eclectic). Lady Bird is simply a sharply observed film about one voice and many voices, and all anyone has ever asked for is that they be given a chance for their voices to be heard.

Lady Bird is Recommended If You Like: Saved!, Adventureland, An Education

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Communion Wafers

This Is a Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

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manchester-by-the-sea-casey-affleck-lucas-hedges-promo

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2016.

Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: R for Adult Themes Discussed and Left Undiscussed

Release Date: November 18, 2016 (Limited)

In Manchester by the Sea, Boston handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) must return home to his Massachusetts fishing village hometown after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). He is then shocked to discover that Joe has entrusted him as the sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). As he struggles to settle back into life in Manchester-by-the-Sea, he must deal with returning to a place where his existence is practically an urban legend and crossing paths with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) after their marriage ended in tragedy.

That sounds like a formula for a bummer, and indeed the emotions are often heavy. But if you come in stealing yourself for non-stop depression, like I did, then you will be pleasantly surprised by how much humor there is. At times it plays like an odd couple buddy comedy between Affleck and Hedges, even when long-simmering familial tensions are at their most contentious. The two even act as impromptu wingmen for each other. The film’s sexual politics involving adolescents and how much parents are privy to them are both progressive and screwball.

But Manchester by the Sea undoubtedly belongs to Affleck. I had heard his is one of the best performances of the year. So I was on the lookout for any clear techniques that would show off his emotional prowess, which are not obvious. Do not be fooled though. I have been won over, even though I cannot pinpoint any one at which I would say, “There it is!” Perhaps you will feel the same way.

The question of why Lee’s life has ended up the way it has is pressing at every turn. He has been the victim of multiple tragedies, but that can hardly be the entire source of blame, as his hotheadedness is constantly betraying him. For anyone who has ever had loved ones drag themselves and everyone else down, take a breath, and then take several more, as you stick with the duration of this film. It will reward you for your patience.

Manchester by the Sea is Recommended If You Like: Hanging out with the family, Bah-ston accents, A Surprise Cameo from a Cinematic Icon

Grade: 4 out of 5 Sucker Punches from Casey Affleck