In the upcoming biopic Honey Boy, about the life of child actor turned cultural phenomenon Shia LaBeouf, the line between reality and performance is blurred, as LaBeouf plays the role of his own father. LaBeouf wrote the script while in rehab, in the midst of a personal crisis, and has described the experience as an exorcism of personal demons.
Fractured relationships between fathers and sons are becoming more common than ever: 40% of Americans grow up in single-parent homes, largely due to absent fathers—a phenomenon that disproportionately affects boys. As the film’s director has remarked, the whole world is dealing with daddy issues right now. LaBeouf himself has, in recent years, become a lightning rod for the major themes of our generation. No one embodies our absurdist, postmodern or—as Shia might call it—metamodern era of public life more than he does. The man is a walking meme.
Demise and Rise of Shia LaBeouf
LaBeouf was born in Los Angeles in 1986, the only child of Shayna and Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf. His mother was a dancer turned clothing designer and his father a Vietnam war vet turned rodeo clown, who struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Shia describes them as hippies, leading a “hippie lifestyle.” After his parents’ divorce, Shia and his mother lived in relative poverty for a time, and he began performing for his parents and mimicking his father’s circus act as a coping mechanism. At age ten, he started doing stand up at comedy clubs, with the encouragement of his dad, and found an agent in the Yellow Pages, by impersonating a British talent manager who touted an upcoming star named Shia LaBeouf. By the early 2000s, LaBeouf was getting regular parts in TV shows, and went on to star in the hit Disney series Even Stevens. During this period, Shia says that he was more driven to support his parents financially than to be an actor. It’s clear from interviews that he felt beholden to his father, who, as a failed performer, was living vicariously through his son. All of this and more is documented in the upcoming film.
It was towards the end of his teenage years that the trouble began. LaBeouf’s youthful pose as a lovable goon started to show signs of wear, and was replaced by a more complicated and self-destructive personality. He became a serious actor, playing supporting roles in I Robot, Charlie’s Angels and other blockbusters before being cast as the lead in the classic film Holes. But the cracks were beginning to show. In an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2003, Shia’s behaviour was an odd combination of the obnoxious and the awkward. Conan even commented on Shia’s histrionics with the question: “How old are you again!?”
Later, LaBeouf became a Hollywood icon. With starring roles in blockbusters like the Transformers series and the sequels to Wall Street and Indiana Jones, LaBeouf was finally more than just a child star. But—if Honey Boy is any indication—this was also the period when Shia became disillusioned and began to view his upbringing in a more critical light.
In 2014, LaBeouf was charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to leave a New York City theater. The arrest report states that he spat on and shouted at the officers who were called to the scene. Not long afterwards, Shia sought voluntary outpatient treatment for alcoholism and enrolled in a 12-step programme. But, in 2017, he was arrested for public drunkeness in Savannah, Georgia, and sentenced to twelve months of probation and anger management training. This incident was documented in now famous police footage of Shia making lewd and borderline racist remarks to the officers, which—like pretty much anything Shia does on camera—subsequently went viral. During a stint in drug rehab, he was diagnosed with PTSD. It was around this time that LaBeouf faced multiple accusations of plagiarism. His story was beginning to look like yet another tragic but predictable case of a child actor who couldn’t let go of the adulation he’d received in his youth and had descended into mental illness.
But, surprisingly, LaBeouf bounced back. In 2016, he launched a series of performance art pieces on various autobiographical themes, alongside Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö and UK-based Luke Turner. The pieces were both a form of self-expression and an attempt to capture the ethos of our time, which Turner describes as metamodernism in The Metamodernist Manifesto, the document which led Shia to meet Turner and Rönkkö in the first place. The manifesto is a short list of jumbled, barely coherent precepts and reads like a variant on postmodern theory, strewn with nouns like oscillation and pulsation to add a vaguely spiritual vibe. Still, there are moments of subtle genius, such as the succinct assertion that “error breeds sense” and the description of metamodernism as “the mercurial condition between irony and sincerity,” which is about as accurate a description of my generation as I can think of. The trio’s subsequent projects have felt honest and resonated with many people.
In #ImSorry, LaBeouf sat in a room with a bag over his head for six straight days, while random people came in and castigated him for his past sins. For #AllMyMovies, he rented out a theatre in downtown Manhattan and invited whoever was interested to watch all his movies with him, to help him come to terms with his personal history. Then there was the infamous “Just Do It” video in #Introductions, in which Shia howls at his audience, exhorting them to pursue their dreams. In #HeWillNotDivideUs, after Trump’s election, Shia invited people to chant those words for days on end. After a number of 4Chan trolls attempted to disrupt his livestream, Shia ended up getting arrested again, for punching a fan whom he mistook for a Trump supporter. On the whole, Shia’s exhibitions have been well-intentioned and cathartic for audiences.
In Defense of Shia LaBeouf
Many of those outside his fanbase regard Shia as an attention-seeking misanthrope. The arrests, the plagiarism charges, the eccentric performance art, the belligerent disdain for political opponents—all this seems like the ego-fueled narcissism of a wealthy, famous member of generation snowflake. And some of it is. But there is more to the LaBeouf spectacle than meets the eye. In all of his postmodern glory, Labeouf reveals the hidden thread running through the collective sensibilities of our generation. Amidst the histrionics and absurdity, there is clearly a depth and intelligence that attracts people to Shia and keeps them coming back, despite his repeated blunders.
LaBeouf is an autodidact, without formal acting training or academic credentials. Moreover, considering the sheer number of former child actors who have gone—and stayed—off the rails, LaBeouf’s antics are pretty mellow. There are also hints of genius in his interviews. In an address to the Oxford Union during one of his performance pieces, Shia describes memes as an art form that evokes a shared experience, and the hashtag as a bridge between the digital world and the real world. There is something uniquely uplifting about how he expresses himself, as when, in that same Oxford talk, he says, “I’m not trying to change the world, I’m just trying to get my little piece of it right.” In a recent interview about the upcoming film, LaBeouf describes the experience of playing his own father as lifesaving: “I mean, that’s a cute way of saying where I was at. I was totally bullshit lost and quite apathetic to my whole craft and my life. I hadn’t talked to my dad in six years. I had no creative friends. Really bottom barrel, for me. Which is what I needed. I wasn’t going to stop doing what I was doing until that happened to me.” In another, when asked what his advice would be to other kids whose parents are alcoholics, his refrain was simply, “Don’t waste your pain. Don’t waste it. It’s a useful paint.” This kind of heart-wrenching honesty is hard not to appreciate.
Perhaps the most objectionable thing about Shia is his politics, but even in this he is a representative of his generation. LaBeouf is a Social Justice Warrior, a progressive intersectionalist, who believes that group identity—whether defined by race, gender or sexuality—is highly relevant to who we are as individuals and that the values of the recent past—traditional morality, family values, American exceptionalism—were more or less a cosmic mistake. Shia speaks the language of oppressor/oppressed and sees the perceived victim status of the particular identity groups to which we belong as an essential part of who we are.
In a recent interview with MTV, he describes human beings as tribal creatures who require large circles of friends and asserts that the nuclear family “turned out to be toxic.” He also describes the theatre as something for “old white people.” In his Oxford Union address, he says of conventional forms of masculinity that “we have been lied to.” When asked about the Stanislavski method, he describes the legendary acting teacher as “a failed actor from a rich family who was embarrassed about all of that” and who “needed to define himself” through “dense and wordy” paragraphs “about something he really didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about,” which seems like a projection of his own doubts, expressed in his distinctive language of privilege and victimhood. He repeatedly uses progressive dog whistles like dead white men and likes to throw the word egalitarian around glibly, even when it doesn’t make much sense in context. Shia is aggressively woke.
I’ve written before about what French writer Pascal Bruckner calls “the tyranny of guilt,” or what I called the pathology of innocence, a phenomenon that involves relatively privileged white people appropriating the grievances of formerly marginalized groups in order to attain their moral capital. This allows them to alleviate their guilt, while maintaining a sense of superiority over less enlightened white people. LaBeouf clearly has feelings about inequality and injustice, but has yet to organise those feelings into a coherent political narrative. Yet Shia’s importance has nothing to do with politics.
Culture and Politics
If we believe, as the left do, that culture is downstream from politics, then the most important thing about a public figure is her political outlook and which social policies she advocates. But if we presume, as I do, that politics can be downstream from culture, then a public figure’s politics are tangential to her overall impact on society. Few, if any, public figures demonstrate the role culture plays in influencing what people think and feel more than LaBeouf.
Almost everything he does publicly ends up turning into a meme. Almost everything he says becomes a collective inside joke or cultural reference. As I have written before, culture matters, and LaBeouf is a cultural beacon of our time. Asked whether public figures should support political goals, he responded: “It doesn’t sit right with me: actor/politico. I just don’t like that, it doesn’t feel good. I have my own views on things, but it’s just not my domain. I’m a professional feeler, not a strategist politically. I don’t have control over people like that.” Whether or not he is being honest here, the bitter attacks on his politics are contributing to the politicization of culture, which, ironically, is part of why he is criticized in the first place—namely, for turning his cultural platform into a venue for political stunts. But it is necessary to differentiate between politics and culture. The impact of culture might be harder to measure than that of politics, but our prescriptions for the improvement of society ought not be confined to the realm of politics, as culture can be equally impactful in determining social and economic outcomes.
When we were in high school, my friends and I had a drinking game called the Beouf. We would watch Shia LaBeouf movies and take a swig of whiskey every time he beoufed it, i.e did something especially characteristic (we became rather drunk fairly quickly). We felt that we had grown up alongside Shia.
Seeing the trailer for Honey Boy felt like coming full circle, watching someone I care about and identify with become a fully fledged adult. I would never have guessed that LaBeouf would make it this far or that he would have had such a powerful effect on our culture to the extent that, in a sense, we are all beoufing it now.
It has been said that genius involves carrying the spirit of our childhood into adulthood, preserving the creative potential of youth amidst the stresses of modern life. Shia LaBeouf exemplifies this twenty times over. He pursues his art unapologetically. For that, he has my respect. I raise my whiskey glass to him.