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'Honey Boy' Marks Actor Shia LeBeouf's Screenwriting Debut


The actor Shia LeBeouf has written his first movie. It's called "Honey Boy," and it draws on his childhood as a Disney star and his conflicted relationship with his dad, who he plays in the movie. NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi has the story.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When we first meet Otis Lort, a thinly fictionalized Shia LeBeouf played by Lucas Hedges, he's spiraling toward rock bottom. Sure, he's a successful movie star, but he's clearly in turmoil. And after a drunken car accident, Otis finds himself in court-ordered rehab, forced to confront his demons through extensive writing and therapy.


LAURA SAN GIACOMO: (As Dr. Moreno) Otis, I've been doing this a long time. I saw your tests, and you have clear signs of PTSD.

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Otis Lort) No, I don't. From what?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The answer centers on Otis' relationship with his father and manager, an alcoholic ex-rodeo clown and felon based on LeBeouf's real-life father. The film unfolds as a parallel narrative, weaving between Otis' childhood living with his domineering father in a run-down LA motel room and as an adult in rehab reckoning with the past. LeBeouf says the material for "Honey Boy" grew out of his own therapy sessions after he was sent to rehab and diagnosed with PTSD but that it didn't take shape as a film until he began corresponding with his creative collaborator, Israeli director Alma Har'el.


SHIA LABEOUF: I've never had such a respectful, loving relationship with a person - very boundaried (ph), very professional, but also very warm and very honest.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: "Honey Boy" is Har'el's first scripted film, but her approach to documentary made her remarkably suited to the task, exploring the lines between fiction and nonfiction and engaging with traumatic memories through reenactment and performance.


ALMA HAR'EL: I don't look at film genres in this, like, kind of binary way of, like, documentary, scripted, animation, dance.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Her first documentary portrayed people living in the derelict former resort town of Bombay Beach on the edge of California's Salton Sea using a combination of verite and surreal dance sequences. It won best documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. And when Shia LeBeouf happened to stumble across it at a record store, he was immediately struck by the sense of intimacy Har'el managed to capture in her subjects.


LABEOUF: So I wrote a fan letter.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Thus began a years-long creative partnership. LeBeouf executive-produced her second documentary, "LoveTrue," in which Har'el hired actors to play younger versions of her subjects to creatively explore their own psychodramas. And Har'el says it was a similar mix of performance and emotional excavation, artistry and honesty that she saw on the pages LeBeouf started sending her from rehab.


HAR'EL: It's, like, the alchemy process of making art from pain and using that pain in order to make gold.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: LeBeouf says Har'el created a space on set in which he could focus on craft, fully inhabiting the role of his father alongside actor Noah Jupe, who plays his younger self.


LABEOUF: (As James Lort) How do you think it feels for me to have my son talk to me the way that you talk to me, have my son paying me? How do you think that feels?

NOAH JUPE: (As Otis Lort) You wouldn't be here if I didn't pay you.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Kim Yutani is director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Honey Boy" premiered. She says the film heralds a new chapter in Har'els career, pointing to her advocacy work.


KIM YUTANI: She has such a clear idea of how to achieve gender equality in this industry, going straight to the issue, looking at who is getting hired for jobs and coming up with a solution as to change that.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Harrell started a movement called Free the Work, a curated hiring database featuring underrepresented talent that aims to change the way everyone's stories are told on screen. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX SOMERS' "FAIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).
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