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Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Honey Boy’ Adds Unusual Twist to Oscar’s History With Kids

Honey Boy
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Hollywood has made many terrific films about childhood, and many about filmmaking. Amazon’s “Honey Boy,” which opened Nov. 8, combines the two: A movie with a child’s POV of the industry. That unique angle could be a real benefit during awards season, and the film’s backstory — with Shia LaBeouf as the main attraction — will prove both its greatest asset and its challenge in an awards push.

Oscar voters in recent years have been enthusiastic about Hollywood-focused stories. For some reason, Academy voters for many decades gave the best-picture prize to films about people in theater (“The Great Ziegfeld,” “All About Eve,” “Shakespeare in Love”), in music (“Amadeus”) and even in the circus (“The Greatest Show on Earth”). But films about moviemaking were generally also-rans: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Stunt Man,” “The Player,” “Barton Fink” and “Mulholland Drive” earned a few Oscar bids, but none was nominated as best picture.

The zeitgeist changed in the 21st century and movies set in Southern California, like “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby,” took the top prize for the first time. Then three films in which moviemaking plays a central role — “The Artist,” “Argo” and “Birdman” — were named best picture.

During awards campaigns, every film needs a strong backstory, relating not only why the film is good, but explaining why it is special.

LaBeouf scripted “Honey Boy” and plays a thinly fictionalized version of his own father, the source of many problems over the years. After a series of tabloid scandals and legal woes as an adult, LaBeouf has channeled his broken childhood into art — something that is irresistible to awards voters. Even better, Hollywood loves a big comeback (Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson, etc.). But that can also be a challenge: Some may see his apparent redemption and return to the Hollywood mainstream as its own reward.

That would be a shame, because his work as writer and actor deserves serious consideration on its own. So do many other key contributors to “Honey Boy,” notably director Alma Har’el.

The film also points up that Hollywood has always been ambivalent about children. There have been a few films about the hardships of child performers, including “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “Gypsy” (both 1962, interestingly) and Roadshow’s current “Judy.”

“Honey Boy” points out the downside of a child thrust into an adult world of contract negotiations, job uncertainty and adult expectations. In one “Honey Boy” confrontation, young Otis (Noah Jupe) snaps at his father, “I’m paying you to be my chaperone. I’m your boss.” When his abusive dad admits it’s hard to be supported by a 12-year-old, Otis says sadly, “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you.”

Over the decades, there have been many real-life cautionary tales of young actors. On the other hand, the list of Oscar winners includes adults who started as child actors, including Jodie Foster, Ron Howard and Elizabeth Taylor. Maybe they survived because they are smart and because they had parents who knew how to handle the pressures of showbiz.

But back to that weird year of 1962. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences handed out special Oscars to young performers, from Shirley Temple in 1934 to Hayley Mills in 1960, the 12th and final honoree. It was rare when a youngster landed in the competitive acting categories.

But for some unknown reason, the Academy stopped the special awards, and young actors were competing with adults in 1962, including Patty Duke for “The Miracle Worker” and Mary Badham for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Duke won. Since then, Tatum O’Neal, Anna Paquin have won and others have been nominated.
The message is clear. Child actors are to be treated like adults.

As LaBeouf’s story demonstrates, that’s a slippery slope. Just because the kids act like professionals, don’t assume they are simply shorter versions of adults.