There’s a saying, “better to be a dog in peace time, than a human in times of war.” From a Chinese author in 1627, Feng Menglong, it speaks of the troubles which assail our species during our existence on Earth. Apparently the roots of this phrase got tangled throughout time and cultures, and the British imported it to attribute a new phrase to its’ roots and created a supposed curse; “May you live in interesting times”. The irony is meant to break out through its’ delivery, supposedly condemning it’s subject to a life filled with the conflicts we supposedly wish to avoid in order to achieve or maintain happiness in life.
Honey Boy (2019, Dir. Alma Har’el) manifests that saying, the whole film runs like an explanation of that phrase, as we traverse through an autobiographical forest of Shia LaBoeuf’s early childhood, handled by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as young and older Shia respectively, while Shia himself embodies and plays the role of his father. The trees talk in this forest, and they have a lot to say.
We do pay a price for the sins of our fathers in this life. They actions of our ancestors tumble and unfold across this Earth and have been doing so for generations, and especially as we grow as young and impressionable children, we take stock and absorb the actions of our parents (if we have them). Their actions mark us, mold us, scar us both mentally and physically. As a child, you are bonded to your parent, your carer, your protector and mentor in a large and vertiginious world. You cannot navigate the real world space as a child, you need a support to lean on. But a child does not choose their support, or any of the associated bindings that come with it. Human beings cascade through life crashing against it’s shores, and sometimes those shores result in new humans that they are now attached to. Interesting times manifest as a growing little child, orbiting around you and whatever deitritus you’ve picked up along the way.
The parent-child bond whips its’ own way throughout life, and hell hath no fury like telling a parent how to raise their kid properly. But it’s universal that children are impressed upon by their adults, especially their parents. Where Honey Boy swerves into its’ own lane is the uniqueness of the source material, since Shia LaBoeuf’s own twisting childhood was intertwined with his exposure to the world as a fictional son in the eyes of millions, through his career as a Disney child star and actor. For those young enough to have grown up with that experience, the story activates layers of meaning which other stories can’t spin around. His fictional presence in a disney-fied familial setting was impressed into our own minds as children, a heavily Americanised and sanitised setting, that work he did was sustained and fed the abusive real childhood that he went through and which is now the basis of another fictionalised story. Honey Boy’s existence springs from a well where the boundaries of fiction and real life are much thinner, and so the work takes on a peculiar sense of being as it unfolds.
It is nasty to watch a child grow up in a world that you can see isn’t right to them. But it is also the lot of many a child across the world. Har’el can see this, and makes sure that Honey Boy doesn’t get away with washing down and cleaning up the ugly growths of LaBoeuf’s childhood. Even among the mechanised, well-lit and well ordered sets of film workers, LaBoeuf’s childhood slips in betweens the cracks of alcoholism, separated parents, and emotional and psychological issues which crash straight through any semblance of normality. There’s a particularly caustic scene where Otis (the moniker for LaBoeuf in the film) has to relay a conversation back and forth between his father and his mother on the phone, being exposed to the vitriol and the content of a fight which doesn’t need to be channeled through him. It’s moments like these which slowly eat away at the fragile stability of a child’s world, the kind which leads to problems down the line.
And so it goes, as Otis spends part of his adult life going through therapy as part of a rehabilitation program, trying to stitch back together some of these psychic wounds which were left open. The process in the film is one of remembering, an act which can be traumatic in and of itself. The impressions that are left on us by our parents fit their shape, not ours and that conscious readjustment is rarely smooth. It is painful to see, because it is painful to bear. The two timelines of the films allow an understanding across time of how the weight of our parental conflicts affects us throughout our life, not just in the moment they happened in.
So too do the fantasies, as one of the most crushing moments arrives as Otis sits in a filmed version of a family dynamic, a nurturing father giving guidance to his son. It echoes the footage I must have seen of LaBoeuf growing up, footage that I must have absorbed at the time of how a father and son should talk in the Disney-fied world. And it is hard to know that that fantasy which echoed the illusion of a genuine family which I as a child probably yearned for, was an illusion which carried sharper spikes for it’s performers. The conflicts and ideas of our childhood spill like oil across the rest of our lives, and it is their sticky residue which come back to haunt us.
May you live in interesting times is what I hear throughout the film, bouncing off it’s surfaces. The lives of these characters, based off of the lives of these real people, are cannonballs hurtling through the sides of ships, splintering fragments of war everywhere. James, Otis’s father, explodes again and again detonating over his son’s psyche, and the consequences lash against them both. But through the most violent and turbulent times, the bond which binds the two carries throughout time, interesting or not. There is a reckoning by the end of the film, and the happiness which lurks in the daydreams and fantasies of our lives is replaced by a contentment with the interesting times we occupy, because they are all we have.
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