Do you speak Hebrew,” asks Alma Har’el, as we sit down to discuss her new film, Honey Boy. I tell her I’m not fluent and she looks mildly disappointed. “Sometimes I get a little Hebrew action in these interviews and I’m thankful for it, because I miss it,” she says. “I’ll talk to my dad, though, and then I’ll get to talk some Hebrew.”
Har’el was born in Tel Aviv and moved to the United States to be with her now-ex husband, the screenwriter Boaz Yakin. She had tried to make a go of it there before, but it didn’t work out.
“I first went to New York when I was 19, with $750, and lasted two years,” she recalls. “I worked as a barista during the day and a bartender at night. Kept change in a jar and bought my first stills camera. I moved to London, Tel Aviv, and then went back [to the US] in 2006.”
Her route to film-making was discursive, including acting in a theatre where her father worked as a child; modelling; presenting on Israeli TV; VJing, and directing music videos and commercials, “to pay the rent”. As she couldn’t afford to go to film school, she learned largely by doing.
“I’m not one of those people that were like, ‘Oh, I picked up a camera at the age of 12 and then I wanted to be Steven Spielberg, and then I went to NYU and then I made a film, and then I got discovered by you know who.’ It was a much more messy and confused and survivalist experience.”
Honey Boy is Har’el’s first dramatic feature — following two acclaimed documentaries — and, if there’s any justice, a potential Oscar contender. It was written by and stars the Jewish actor Shia LaBeouf, whose notoriously bizarre and sometimes violent antics off camera have occasionally threatened to overshadow his acting work. Now, through his soul-baring screenplay, Har’el’s sensitive direction, and a handful of committed performances, we get to understand some of the psychological and emotional damage that was done to him as a child.
Har’el first met LaBeouf in 2011. He’d stumbled across her dreamy documentary Bombay Beach while looking for a Bob Dylan documentary at a store in LA, and after watching its study of people living in a rundown town on the edge of the Salton Sea, emailed her out of the blue.
“He told me I’m a great shooter, because I also shot that film. And he thought it was one of the best films he’d seen. He watched it twice the same night, then he contacted me.”
Although they didn’t discuss it at the time, Har’el says they’ve since agreed that what really caught LaBeouf’s imagination was the relationship in the film between a young boy and his father, who “suffers from a lot of trauma from being in jail and also alcoholism.” The actor had also grown up with a (non-Jewish) father who was a felon, drug user and drinker, and it is that relationship he has made, roman-a-clef style, the heart of Honey Boy.
Har’el has had her own struggles from being the daughter of an alcoholic father. Moreover, she grew up in a “very nuclear family” because her Polish grandparents on both sides lost many relatives in the Holocaust. “They survived and moved to Israel . . . I grew up with a constant reminder of that and, obviously, it was still part of the culture.”
In LaBeouf, she recognised someone who was trying, like her, to “tap into pain and trauma and interested in transcending that sh*t . . . So I always say that he’s my ‘art brother’, because the people that become your partners in art, you have a journey to walk together, probably.”
Their first step was a music video for the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, in 2012, “that dealt with the perpetuating cycle of addiction and abuse, and how it seeps into relationships. Exploring that was extremely important for both of us,” says Har’el. “So it very much, right away, felt like family.”
When no one would finance Har’el’s second documentary, LoveTrue, LaBeouf stepped in. And when he was ordered by a court to attend a “mental health facility” (the alternative would have been seven years in jail), following his 2017 arrest for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and obstruction in Georgia, where he was filming The Peanut Butter Falcon; he reached out to her for support.
The actor was diagnosed with PTSD. As part of his treatment he was given exposure therapy, which, says Har’el, “includes recreating and writing down your traumatic childhood moments, of which he had many: he was present at his house while his mother was raped when he was very young. And then, of course, there’s everything that happened with his father.”
LeBeouf wrote his memories in script form and emailed the pages to Har’el. “It really f*cked me up when I read it,” she says of the story of a troubled actor looking back on a period of his life when he was a child star holed-up in a motel with his father, while filming a TV comedy series at a nearby studio — just as LaBeouf himself had once been.
“What was extraordinary was that it’s not about what people say, it’s about what’s underneath it the whole time,” she says. Otis, the character LaBeouf based on himself, and his self-lacerating and abusive father talk about pie fights and pulling funny faces, “but really what it is about is fear and addiction and failure, and generational pain that is inherited and then passed on, and the loyalty that ‘adult children of alcoholics’, as we say in the room, like me, have to the pain, the loyalty we have to our fathers’ wounds, and that very much spoke to me.”
Her documentaries are also about generational pain, making them and Honey Boy “a trilogy, in many ways”, she says. I ask if she agrees with the Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz (Foxtrot) who told me that the society they were raised in is suffering from inherited trauma. “Yeah,” she replies.
“I think Israel is a perfect example of generational pain that is now being passed to the Palestinians . . . The whole region right now has probably the worst leadership we’ve ever had in Netanyahu. Pain, if not handled in a certain way, will be passed to another generation.”
How to deal with it is the question. Har’el thought that LaBeouf might benefit from playing the father who’d abused him in Honey Boy, and convinced him to take the role. He was fresh out of rehab and the director consulted with his therapist on the phone to ensure that the environment she created was therapeutic rather than triggering.
LaBeouf has some intense, physically rough scenes with Noah Jupe, the 12-year-old British actor playing the childhood version of Otis, but Har’el never felt that lines were being crossed. Their relationship was “wonderful and safe”, she insists.
“If Shia gets angry and veers into the more intense parts of his personality that are harder to deal with, it’s actually with authority, it’s not with children. He’s triggered by a feeling of being oppressed or challenged.”
As for her own challenges, one of the biggest and most interesting was how to deal — in a non-judgmental way — with characters exhibiting toxic masculinity. In her view: “We’re all victims of toxic masculinity. And I think men are victims of toxic masculinity first.
“They’re actually the ones who inherit the expectations of it and then perform it, and then they hurt women. But in order to perform toxic masculinity you have to have it in you and inherit it from somebody. A little boy that is born into the world is not toxic, so it’s culture.”
Honey Boy is tender, honest and above all, like the rest of Har’el’s work, deeply empathetic. She doesn’t demonise LaBeouf’s character, which given that he’s a sex offender would have been easy, but tries to understand his pain.
“At some point, maybe, I’ll be judged for that; for not prioritising one thing over another as a woman,” suggests Har’el. “But I think it’s important for me not to ‘otherise’. And I think that’s the only way I can find peace.”
Honey Boy opens December 6