Honey Boy and Honeyland

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Lucas Hedges plays a very lightly fictionalised version of the actor Shia LaBeouf, renamed Otis, as he has a car accident, gets nasty with the attending police officers, and winds up in a rehab facility, where it is made clear that if he doesn’t complete his treatment he will serve four years in prison. In treatment, he is encouraged to seek out the source of his pain and record the findings in a journal. That journal becomes the screenplay of the movie we’re watching, in which Hedges is joined by Noah Jupe as his young self and LaBeouf himself as his own dad.

That all sounds like a recipe for staggering indulgence, a feature film, charging us for a ticket, that is really simply part of a troubled thespian’s therapy. But, thanks to suburb direction from first-time feature director Alma Har’el, a satisfyingly unsentimental screenplay from LaBeouf, and excellent performances all around, the result is terrific, a thoroughly compelling addition to the “bad dad” sub-genre (The Great Santini, Swimming Upstream) anchored by LaBeouf’s uncanny performance as his own troubled father.

LaBeouf was a child actor who had a string of TV movie, movie and TV series roles in 1998-2000; Honey Boy (his father’s nickname for him) takes place during that curious phase as his career is taking off and possibilities seem exciting and slightly terrifying. Otis and his dad don’t live in Los Angeles, so while filming there, they live in a seedy motel; Otis’ dad is a veteran, four year’s sober, with a smorgasbord of problems, most perniciously one of intolerably low self-esteem; a chip on the shoulder, it seems, carries through the generations as relentlessly as alcoholism.

When the credits rolled, I found myself waiting to see who played Otis’s father, somehow convinced that LaBeouf had played himself; the film is that convincing, and also that strange. Therapy movies, as a genre, are hardly my wheelhouse, but this one is absolutely worth the price on the ticket. * * * 1/2

Don’t accidentally buy a ticket to Honeyland if you want your LaBeouf, but by all means buy a ticket, as it’s no less impactful. Nominated, fascinatingly, for both Best International Film and Best Feature Documentary at this year’s Oscars, Honeyland defies easy categorisation: if you were to simply walk in off the street knowing nothing, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d watched a narrative fiction feature film.

Eschewing any of documentary’s traditional signifiers – voice over, interviews, title cards – the film plunges us into the life of Hatidze Muratova, an indigenous Macedonian woman living a pre-industrial life in the Balkan mountains. She cares for her old and invalid mother and her bees; when the latter produce enough honey for a sackful of jars, she walks four hours to the nearest town to sell them at market. It’s a monotonous life but a sustainable one, until an outside force – a large itinerant family – sets up camp nearby. Then things change.

The film’s thematic resonance is huge: in Hatidze’s seemingly simple story, we can find a vast metaphor for the world’s struggle with environmental sustainability. As an anthropological artefact, it’s eye-opening: Hatidze’s existence seems not just of an alien place but a different century. And as filmmaking, it’s jaw-dropping. Spending three years with their subject, directors Ljubo Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska gathered enough material to give us all the trappings of narrative feature film: coverage, reaction shots, inserts, cutaways, reverse angles. We don’t just see an event, we see an event told using all the language of cinema. Whether the participants were ever asked to repeat things, to re-stage moments, is a valid question, but unnecessary to our enjoyment of this spectacularly humane story. * * * *

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