December 9, 2019 – I went into this movie not knowing anything about it in advance. Even then, it became clear early on that this was based on somebody's personal experience, as opposed to the usual Hollywood story treatments.
Dysfunctional families are common fodder for movie dramas, but this one is so specific, so nuanced, and so tied to the movie industry itself that it has the unmistakable air of authenticity. The screenplay, by Shia LaBeouf, is based on his own life. LaBeouf also stars in the film, playing the part of his own father, James Lort, a former rodeo clown, military veteran, convict, and all-around damaged and unstable man.
Lort's son, Otis, is played by Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) at age 12 and Lucas Hedges (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) at age 22. This, essentially is LaBeouf's character. Otis, at age 22, is at a court-ordered rehabilitation facility in lieu of prison for drunk driving and resisting arrest. As part of his therapy, he is asked to think about his childhood and write down his memories.
This process is very painful for Otis, who is diagnosed with PTSD. His relationship with his father (played by Shia LaBeouf) is very rocky. As a child actor, the 12-year-old Otis is essentially hiring his father to take care of him while he is making a film. Otis' father is very resentful of his son's friends and fame. He feels like he is sacrificing his own career in order to take care of his son.
The unstable relationship between Otis and his father is at the heart of the movie. Otis has a very hard time making sense of the world when he tries to see it through the eyes of his father, who is very fond of mind games and heavy-handed emotional control, which sometimes takes the form of physical abuse. Otis, as a 12-year-old, is in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, until his father violently threatens his Big Brother, Tom (Clifton Collins Jr. of “The Mule”) in a fit of jealousy. Both Otis and his father share a strange affinity with chickens (a most unusual film credit is given to “Henrietta LaFowl -- the World’s First Daredevil Chicken”).
Otis, as a 22-year-old, is seen working his way through the poison of his anger, as well as the anger of his father, who was, in turn, traumatized by his own childhood (this is revealed in an emotional group therapy session with other Army Veterans). Otis resists the therapy of his counselor, Doctor Moreno (Laura San Giacomo of “Pretty Woman”) and others, but does make some progress. Otis' father tells him at one point that he and Otis are both products of a long family line of abusive alcoholics.
There is a very tender sort of puppy love relationship between the 12-year-old Otis and a neighbor woman (played by FKA Twigs). It is an almost idealized relationship, brutally interrupted by Otis' father. The thoughts and actions of Otis as a 12-year-old and as a 22-year-old sometimes merge together in the film. There is an effective fantasy scene where 22-year-old Otis meets with his father and they come to an understanding.
The acting by LaBeouf, Hedges and Jupe, is stellar, while director Alma Har'el does a great job weaving this complex, time-hopping story together. This movie confronts the emotional pain of Otis and his father head on. It offers no easy answers. Nothing is black and white. James Lort is obviously a bad father, but he is also doing the best he can, given his own emotional problems. Film critic A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club called this movie a form of “... drama therapy.” It may indeed be that, but it is also a lot more. This film rates a B+.
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