Closure as Fiction
Spoilers for Honey Boy (2019) and my own life below.
Before I was aware of my own heartbeat, I used to believe that the thumping pulse in my ear was the sound of heavy, male footsteps climbing the stairs up to my bedroom or worse, my mothers. I would wince as I put my head to my pillow, the quiet thumping would pulsate in my ears like my own personal earthquake. The steps were obviously endless and I believed somehow that if I concentrated hard enough on the thuds, it would take my father an eternity to conquer the stairs. Like constructing a force field between his world, the dimly lit downstairs, and mine. When my force field failed, sound changed. As if underwater, I could hear screams suppressed from a room that felt millions of miles away. Shouting sounded like a sonic boom that was merely being muffled by an impenetrable wall. Both loud and painfully quiet. Then those sounds stopped. The footsteps stopped thumping.
One day, or perhaps many different days, I opened my door as if seeing sunlight for the first time. I went outside with my mum, just the two of us. We occupied the communal spaces in the house like they were vast rooms in a mansion we’d built for ourselves. I’m now twenty-one years old. When I go home, I know that my mothers house is a safe space. I own the noise that my heart makes. I’ve had years to perfect different interpretations of a person I barely knew. I know that like me, he wrote poetry. He loved gin and pocket watches and at some point, in rare moments of sober clarity, my mum. Maybe even me. Since becoming an adult, I’ve learned how easily I could reach out to him. I found his Facebook. I squinted trying to find physical similarities. But I’m afraid. I know that in order to find closure, I have spent my life constructing a million different versions of my father. A million different fictions. The artist of my own mind, I have sketched over the same pencil lines so many times that my father is a blurry abstraction in my mind. I rarely spoke about the ways in which I am my fathers son. Then I watched Honey Boy.
Honey Boy feels like confessional, exposed, performance art from an artist who has truly accepted that he is capable of sharing the weight of his own life with others. Shia LaBeouf has always been close to my heart. From his erratic Sandler-isms as a child actor on Even Stevens to his blockbuster work, to his forays into indie drama, to his political and social activism in recent years, LaBeouf has always been someone I’ve defended and adored. I came at Honey Boy merely knowing that I would probably enjoy it and that it explored themes I am vulnerable to. What I saw was a life peeled back, like petals plucked from a flower, until only the raw emotional essence remained. To be rebuilt by some sunlight and rainfall, if there’s any to be found. Drawing parallels between the traumas of individuals can be reductive and harmful. I will only mention that my trauma was one primarily of distance and absence, where LaBeouf’s seemed to be of proximity and attrition. The moments that hit me hardest in Honey Boy were those where ‘Otis’ is an adult, scrambling to recreate his father on paper in a way that allows him to move on. This is where I found myself in a narrative that is completely unique to Shia.
Perhaps Shia’s or Otis’ journey can be found in one scene. Pacing desperately in front of his parole officer/therapist, adult Otis exclaims that the only useful thing his father ever gave him, was pain. In that dark, hushed cinema screen, I held my breath for longer than I thought possible, so that my tears would escape quietly. I allowed myself for the first time in months, maybe years, to let that statement wash over me. Like seeing a piece of personal writing or art in a new light, I began to cross-examine the idea of my dad with the actual, lived pain that I had felt. They were not the same. I began to wonder who I would’ve been if he had been there. Would I have struggled like Shia had? Was I better off because I did not have to endure the longing presence of a toxic person? I had kept these questions, these feelings caged within poems and stories told and late night conversations with my mother, to the extent that I had forgotten they were in me. I had developed a literature, a fiction of closure that shielded me from acknowledging the extent to which I am, or have been punctuated by pain and absence.
As Otis begins to write his own version of his father, we see the inception of the film we are watching. Shia begins to process his own life in a way that requires structure and exposition and emotion and most of all, honesty. Where child Otis had pleaded with his father James, giving him chance after chance to be a better father, adult Otis knows he must depict James as he was. Not a hero, not a villain, but a man that was torn between elements of his life that he could never fully control. Shia depicts his father as a human and in doing so, begins to heal.
In the closing scene, Otis imagines himself returning to the motel where he had stayed as a child. His father is dressed in his carnival clown attire, seemingly waiting for Otis to return. They sit at the pool. Otis reveals that he’s writing a film about his father. For a second, James seems proud. He says: “you better make me look good honey boy”. Almost an admission of self defeat, James, Otis and the audience know this isn’t possible. But for a second, James and Otis share a moment of self-awareness and empathy. Otis smiles. He imagines his father on the back of his motorbike, holding Otis the same way Otis had held on to his father years ago. The dynamic has changed. While Otis can never shrug off the weight of his father and his actions, he no longer clings to him for support. For validation. Otis drives into the black, into the credits, without James.
I walk out of the cinema and stand outside until my fingers are numb. I stare at the sea and let myself feel cold. I walk home as quickly as I can and I sit for a while, allowing the blood to return to my fingers. Then I write. I write because Otis writes. I write because I will never get closure from the person that owes it to me. I write to construct a fiction from fact. I reinvent my father over and over until he’s a character in my story. In my control. I will do this for the rest of my life.
Honey Boy is out in UK cinemas now.