Chase’s Art-House Roundup: Mid-December 2019

Chase offers thoughts on Honey Boy, The Report, Waves, and Dark Waters.

Honey Boy – Directed by Alma Har’el

Honey Boy is a surprising feat of reflection from one of Hollywood’s most maligned stars, and Shia LaBeouf manages to pull off his roman à clef with surprisingly little self-indulgence. The film opens with a montage of bad behavior from a mid-20s Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges), a young star at work on a big-budget action film. Otis is angry and self-destructive, grappling with a stunt harness he can’t remove and fueling his frustration with a bottle of whiskey. After a drunken car crash and an altercation with police, Otis is sentenced to a rehab facility where a therapist diagnoses him with PTSD, an odd diagnosis for someone living the privileged life of a Hollywood actor and former child star. He has two options: stay in rehab and undergo therapy or face a jail sentence. How did it come to this?

If this story rings a bell that’s because it’s a thinly-veiled adaptation of Shia LaBeouf’s life: what he discovered in therapy after a 2017 arrest, and an amalgamation of the other legal troubles that have dogged the former Disney Channel star. LaBeouf wrote the film as a project while in rehab, and brought it to the screen with the help of director Alma Har’el. He’s smart to avoid playing the older version of himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in the film. Instead, the actor takes up the role of James Lort, the father who both manages Otis to stardom and physically and psychologically abuses him. In essence LaBeouf is playing his real life and (still living) father.

The majority of the film takes place in flashback with Noah Jupe as the 12-year-old version of Otis working as a child actor. It might be a glamorous life, but Otis wouldn’t know. He and James live in a seedy motel where his father chain-smokes and hits on uninterested women while Otis runs lines and barters for loose cigarettes from his father. There’s not another child in sight, and Otis’s estranged mother appears only via infrequent phone calls. It’s clear that James has pinned his own dreams on Otis and refuses to accept any perceived failure while failing to realize that his own behavior might be the reason for his son’s stress and inability to perform.

It’s easy to imagine Honey Boy as LaBeouf dumping all of his problems at his father’s feet, but the film is surprisingly sympathetic to the fictional James Lort with LaBeouf performing him not as evil, but as a man struggling with his own demons and unable to get out of his own way. At times he’s sweet and defensive. At others he’s manic and aggressive, failing to see how he exposes Otis to the same addictive behaviors that have ruined his own life. In one scene a broken James asks his son how he thinks it feels to have his own son paying him to which Otis flatly states “you wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t paying you.” In another film it would be an indicting door slamming shut on James’s fatherhood, but Honey Boy walks a more tragic line. We see the pain for both Otis and James. Both statements are true.

It’s too much to say that you forget LaBeouf is acting in the film, but the one scene where the actor wears a motorcycle helmet that covers up his costume and highlights his face was a surprising reminder that I was, indeed, watching the actor I’ve seen in tabloids for years. This is real acting, and in a less competitive year LaBeouf would have a real shot at a Best Supporting Actor nod. The performance and the film are an act of cinematic therapy that he’s put on screen for the world to see, and it works in its own low-stakes way.

The Report – Directed by Scott Z. Burns

The Report isn’t a bad film as much as it is a completely average one. It’s easy to see it as a factual correction to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, an excellent film that played fast and loose with the evidence surrounding the role that the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation techniques played in finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) even scoffs openly at that film during his seven years investigating the documents that will eventually provide the factual basis for the “torture report” he presents to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Jones is a political staffer instead of a journalist, but that doesn’t make The Report any less of a journalism film. He’s digging through mountains of documents in search of the truth, and that’s the best lens through which to view it.

The film shifts back and forth between Jones and his colleagues and dramatizations of the secret meetings and tortures that they’re investigating. The film presents the use of torture as an intelligence gathering technique that’s as ineffective as it is morally indefensible, and it casts a disparaging eye on those who would claim to protect the United States by any means necessary, even if that means ignoring the Geneva convention and their own moral compasses. They’ve made it impossible to properly try any of the terrorists held in US custody without gaining a shred of useful evidence. As Jones’s boss Senator Diane Feinstein (Annette Benning) says during one of their meetings, “If [torture] works, why do you need to do it 183 times?”

While the film does come down hard on the Bush administration, it’s hardly a Democratic puff piece. Feinsten and her Senate colleagues are at times fully prepared to quash the report for their own political gain. Instead, the film focuses on how politics is a game that hides the truth from the American people. But what does it all add up to? Not much that we haven’t seen before.

Scott Z. Burns has been a longtime writer for Steven Soderbergh dating back to the pair’s 2009’s The Informant!, but The Report marks his first time directing in over a decade. The result is a workmanlike film about the dogged determination of one man to reveal the truth, but the Amazon Studios production never rises beyond its collection of facts to become a compelling work of art. You’ll even find a better performance from Adam Driver in Netflix’s Marriage Story right now, and potentially another later this year in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. If The Report’s aim is to show the importance of dogged determination in service of the truth, you can find it done much better elsewhere. If its claim to fame is that it tells you the truth, then it’s worth remembering that the facts can only go so far without a compelling story in which to serve them.

Waves – Directed by Trey Edward Shults

Waves is an easy film to throw darts at if you want to. It contains all the major hallmarks of any A24-distributed film: gorgeous visuals, a south Florida setting, a complicated family, and Lucas Hedges. You can laugh, but it’s worth wondering if Waves is anything more than an amalgamation of other successful independent films from this decade. Does a film have to be completely original to be successful? That’s the question that will likely make or break Trey Edward Shults’s new work for many cinephiles. There’s no denying that Waves draws heavily from Barry Jenkins’s playbook, especially Moonlight, but that’s a style that this reviewer happens to greatly admire.

The film unfolds in two separate chapters. The first centers around popular high school senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., re-teaming with Shults after It Comes at Night) as he navigates school, family life, high school wrestling, and his relationship with his girlfriend. Tyler’s life is tightly controlled by his domineering father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who pushes Tyler through exhausting workouts, his studies, and his part-time job at Ronald’s company, and perfection is the only acceptable outcome in any pursuit. Tyler seems to have a promising future ahead of him, but when a wrestling injury derails his senior season that perceived failure begins to impact other facets of his life. Waves is a compassionate look at the need for perfection from African-Americans in order to succeed with Ronald as the complicated figure at its center. Does he have to push so hard to make Tyler great, and when does motivation reach a breaking point?

Trey Edward Shults, a white man, maybe isn’t the director you’d expect to see handling this material, but the film is less focused on racial relations than it is universal experience. I have no idea if the film was originally written with an African-American family in mind, but if it was later transformed in order to cast an actor as excellent as Sterling K. Brown I wouldn’t be surprised. Brown is magnetic with a script that showcases his rang to play a man both fiercely indomitable and, later, shattered. This type of impressionistic film, without easily clip-able grandstanding speeches, doesn’t always yield Oscar nominations, but if Brown is rewarded with one it would be much deserved.

It’s in the film’s second half that Waves transcends its influences and becomes something great with a refocus on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Lost in Space) and how the fallout from Tyler’s story affects her life. Waves drifts along on a tide of emotions, individual lines of naturalistic dialogue falling away in favor of strokes of passion and pain. It’s in Emily’s story that that formula works as the narrative transforms into one about feelings that themselves are often indescribable. It’s no longer about family pressure and sports injuries, but loss, pain, and healing. Emily can’t find the words to easily describe what she feels, and the film makes no attempt to do it for her. Healing can only come with forgiveness and time, and that’s a journey. Waves asks us to take it with her.

Dark Waters – Directed by Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters largely succeeds where fellow “fight for the truth” movie The Report fails, and it does so by focusing on its characters. Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott, a successful attorney who defends chemical companies against litigation. Bilott’s colleagues openly mock the EPA and maintain chummy relations with chemical company big wigs like DuPont’s Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) even when they aren’t representing them. They exist in a culture where DuPont’s slogan “better living through chemistry” is not only a mantra, but a blinding dogma.

So when West Virginia farmer Will Tennant (Bill Camp) asks Bilott to investigate, he offers to take a quick look on behalf of Tennant’s relationship with his grandmother. What he finds is a graveyard of Tennant’s tumor-filled cows and a DuPont waste dump bordering the farm. Disquieted, Bilott begins an investigation that could put his career, health, family, and even his life on the line.

Based on the New York Times Magazine’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” BIlott’s digging into DuPont’s use of dangerous PFOA chemicals is every bit the search for truth that The Report is. The differences lie in the effectiveness of how each film portrays the investigation. Anne Hathaway has a largely thankless role as Bilott’s wife Sarah (anyone complaining about Caitriona Balfe’s domestic role in Ford v Ferrari should be doubly annoyed about what Dark Waters’s script offers Hathaway), but her representation of what Rob is missing at home combined with the disapproval he gets at work for suing one of their industry’s giants allows the risk of his fight to land. Justice and truth are big, important ideas, but without anything concrete to ground them in they can disappear into the ether like they do in The Report.

Dark Waters boasts a strong cast in supporting roles with the aforementioned Camp (one of the industry’s greatest character actors) Tim Robbins as Bilott’s boss, William Jackson Harper as one of Bilott’s proteges, and a brief appearance by Bill Pullman chewing every piece of scenery he can get his teeth on. The film’s first half crackles as Bilott’s discoveries yield more and more evidence of a truly horrifying cover-up, but bogs down later in legal battles. Haynes is a skilled, thoughtful director, and it seems he wants the length of Bilott’s fight to take a similar toll on the audience as it does the protagonist, but the multiple false endings had me checking my watch instead of begging Robert to keep fighting. It isn’t perfect, but the sturdy direction and performances make it more than the run-of-the-mill legal thriller.

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