It’s common knowledge, if you consider yourself a fan of good acting then you probably have some feelings about Shia Labeouf. Whether it’s his on-screen performances or his public art installations or his antics off-screen, Labeouf seems immune to an audience’s ambivalence. He has a uniquely singular ability to have huge swaths of people rooting for him tirelessly while also having a gallery of haters and detractors that includes some of Hollywood’s biggest names as well as literal present-day Nazis.
As a boy he gained fame playing the silly troublemaking Louis Stevens on Disney’s Even Stevens, and he’s been a Hollywood mainstay ever since, but over the years his roles have varied as much as his appearance. Labeouf has been a child star, a studio darling, an industry outcast, and finally, hopefully, a character who can win back our hearts, a man worthy of redemption. With two movies coming out later this year, now seems like a perfect time to revisit some of Shia’s roles and put ourselves in his shoes.
As Dwight Shrute once made abundantly clear, when it comes to ranking bears, there are basically two schools of thought, and the same goes for ranking Shia’s varied performances. While some may prefer the tame innocence of a young, vulnerable, clean-shaven Shia, seen in such classics as Holes or Transformers, others fell in love with the occasionally bearded and unhinged Shia, most notably demonstrated in films like Fury and American Honey. It’s nearly impossible to compare these variant roles head-to-head, so instead I’ve developed a catalogue of different Shia’s that may help readers understand what sort of role the polarizing Mr. Labeouf is bringing to life.
To help differentiate between the varying degrees of Shia or the scale of Labeoufitude, I’ve chosen to focus on the presence or absence (or occasional overwhelm-ance) of Shia’s facial hair. Oftentimes the abundance/style of Shia’s facial hair is an indication of what kind of character will be portrayed and whether or not we can truly root for him.
Note: If the Shia that appears on your screen is sporting facial hair of any kind, take note, for you are about to witness a performance for the ages.
- Child Shia aka Disney’s Golden Boy // A Picture of Innocence
If you stream one of Shia’s early works, prepare yourself for a dose of reality and an overdose of humor. Early in his career, Shia’s childlike innocence brought with it a refreshing sense of honesty. There’s no ambiguity about his characters, they’re silly and fun-loving, but flawed and seem to face endless challenges. His breakout role as Louis Stevens in Disney’s classic TV show carried with it much humor, but many episodes also carried some real insights into issues like how a younger sibling can often feel overlooked or how a class clown can feel pigeonholed out of a proper education. Baby-Faced Shia blends humor with reality masterfully, and rooting for his character was a foregone conclusion (Side note: if you root against Louis Stevens you’re what today’s rappers refer to in common parlance as “the opps”).
Say what you will about Shia, but from an early age there was never any doubting his commitment to a role. Disney Channel’s original movie Tru Confessions is another example of Baby-Faced Shia, as he plays Eddie, an autistic child trying to navigate family life. The film manages to balance humor and drama, and it carries with it a sense of reality, as Shia’s character struggles to relate to and build a happy dynamic with his family. In reality, Shia’s relationship with his biological father is subject of much discussion, and will be further investigated in his upcoming film Honey Boy (more on that later), but it’s promising to see such a young actor channel real trauma into a role. Baby-Faced Shia never disappoints.
2. Clean-Shaven Shia // Corporate Slave Shia
This was Shia at his commercial peak, swimming in Hollywood money and adorning billboards across town. If you encounter anyone who considers these roles Shia’s best work, congratulations, you’ve located an individual with terrible taste. My recommendation would be to locate the nearest exit and excuse yourself from their company.
Clean-Shaven/Corporate Slave Shia (or CS Shia for short) has made clear that while many of these roles provided an opportunity to work with great directors, he wasn’t exactly drawn to these characters for their depth. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg saw enough promise in teenage Shia to make him the face of the Transformers franchise, and he was tapped to play the son of Harrison Ford’s iconic Indiana Jones, another major bankable opportunity. Becoming the face of a billion-dollar franchise doesn’t happen every day, but in CS Shia’s case it was less blessing and more curse.
This iteration of Shia may be well-groomed and well-paid, but he’s a puppet of sorts, running from explosions and fighting bad guys in pursuit of big box office numbers. This might be a dream scenario for most actors, but if Shia has made anything clear, he’s far from the norm. Watching CS Shia, it’s evident that money is not a motivating force for his acting, not exactly ideal for the face of a billion dollar franchise. Lucky for us viewers, Shia decided to swap Michael-Bay explosions for inner demons, which is how we arrive at the next Shia.
3. Slight Stubble Shia // Misunderstood Shia
Walk into a theater for a film or sit down to stream a movie and you might find yourself face to face with a confused and misunderstood Shia, in which case you’re in for a treat. Misunderstood Shia might have a shadow of stubble or a hint of peach fuzz, but he represents adolescence, uncertainty, even innocence to a degree. More than anything these roles often embody the inherent sense of being misunderstood that comes with growing up. Holes the classic movie based on a Louis Sachar book, perfectly exemplifies Misunderstood Shia; often lost and confused, very much out of place, and always facing new challenges that couldn’t be predicted.
Misunderstood Shia knows deep in his heart that he’s in the right, despite everyone around him telling him otherwise. These roles display a confused sense of confidence, typically indignant self-righteousness based in a true understanding of himself. Misunderstood Shia feels no qualms about his position, whether he’s a troubled kid wrongly accused of stealing Sweet Feet’s cleats or a teen working through the loss of his father and a murderous next door neighbor, or even as an animated penguin with dreams of becoming a surfing legend. All of these stories share a common line of external doubt coupled with an intense internal desire to prove others wrong.
Misunderstood Shia is undoubtedly pleasant to watch, not just because of Shia’s good looks, but because we’ve always loved watching characters triumph over their doubters. This Shia is a physical manifestation of liminal space, occupying the place between what he was and what he will be.
4. Mustachioed Shia // Dirty & Downright Dangerous Shia
This is where the real fun begins.
If you walk into a theater and see Shia with some wild facial hair, strap in and save your ticket stub, because all bets are off. This is the Shia you might’ve read about in tabloids, drinking heavily, antagonizing cast-mates, and outright refusing fame. The wild Shia is unpredictable, untamed, downright dangerous. Sometimes he refuses to bathe, sometimes he pulls out his own teeth, anything to commit to the role he’s been cast in. There are plenty of actors that immerse themselves in a character in preparation for a role, but not so many of them take it to this extreme.
Mustachioed Shia’s constant and persistent denial of fame has confused many, but closer analysis of these roles provides plenty of reasoning for his behavior. At the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival Shia walked the red carpet promoting his new film Nymphomaniac with a paper bag on his head that simply read, “I am not famous anymore.” Some might see it as a stunt or a ploy for attention, but I get the feeling that Labeouf had genuinely grown tired of being in the spotlight and wanted to lose himself in his character.
Watching these films, you’ll notice that Mustachioed Shia is oddly self-confident. He doesn’t mind exposing himself in Nymphomaniac or playing the Bible-thumping tank gunner in Fury, he seems more comfortable in the skin of his characters than in his own skin. The end results may vary, but there’s no denying the courage it takes to reject fame.
5. Scruffy Shia // Sad & Somber Shia
LaBeouf’s early roles carried with them a great deal of promise, but in a 2018 profile, Esquire described his career arc as, “less a stratospheric ascent than a misguided rocket wobbling across the sky, strewing wreckage.” The roles in this category could be seen as some of the bright sparks emitted by this so-called wreckage. To some they may seem muddled and unclear, but to me they show Shia at his most vulnerable, and to be honest, likely his most authentic. Gone is the overconfident bluster, replaced instead by sad-eyed Shia, victim of circumstance and desperately searching for help.
In Charlie Countryman he plays a lost young man, scrambling around a foreign country trying to find his place after the death of his mother, experimenting with any number of drugs, including love, anything to soften the pain of losing a parent. His performance is as touching as it is chaotic, and the film could aptly be described as a two-hour train wreck of action and emotion.
Just as he can’t seem to be bothered to shave, Shia can’t be bothered with everyday problems, he is chasing enlightenment, and it starts with ditching the razor. Sigur Ros described their music video featuring Sad Scruffy Shia as “a man and woman locked in a never-ending cycle of addiction and desire”, and if that doesn’t catch your eye, I’m not sure what could. This music video also introduces a sub-category involving Shia’s genitals, but that’ll be a separate dissertation.
For these reasons and many more, Sad & Somber & Scruffy Shia is my personal favorite.
6. Rattail Shia // Can’t Be Tamed Shia
If you happen to spot a rat-tailed Shia in the wild, be warned. A rat tail on Shia (or anyone else tbh), is both a cry for help and a dire warning. Finding out that the bully you’re facing after school on the playground has a rat tail is like finding out he secretly trains with Mr. Miyagi. This is a fight you may not live to regret. A rat tail is an obvious indication that an individual isn’t long for this life, they’ve come to terms with their mortality and are willing to take you with them. In short, they have nothing to lose, much like Shia in American Honey.
American Honey is a beautiful mess of a film, somewhere between a visual road trip and an actual acid trip, and Rattail Shia is a sight for sore eyes. Him and his band of caravanning gypsies guzzle energy drinks, spew out fat vape clouds, solicit donations to dubious causes, and often engage in nude fraternization. Through it all, Rattail Shia does exactly what he wants, charming the pants off of those around him and generally maintaining his status as an unstable genius. His performance as tennis legend and tantrum-extraordinaire John McEnroe further illustrates the legend of Untamed Shia, trying his damnedest to bend a tennis match (and the rest of the world) to his will.
The Tax Collector, out later this year (maybe), is shrouded in secrecy, but it’s being billed as “a gritty urban street crime drama”, which as a description is approximately five words longer than necessary for me to sign on wholeheartedly. Pictures from the set indicate that this Shia will be covered in tattoos, another healthy sign that the character will be completely unpredictable. Shut up and take my money already.
7. Bearded Out // Out of Control // Fully Unhinged Shia
This is the final, fully self-actualized, boss-level Shia. If you see Bearded Weirdo Shia onscreen, the performance is gonna be what critics call “a tour de force”. If you see Bearded Weirdo Shia on the streets, say a prayer, because it’s probably too late, you’ve been caught in his gravitational pull, only God can save you now.
Dedicate some time to watching Sia’s music video for a chance to see Bearded Weirdo Shia with some inspired dance moves. It’s easy to find amusement in Shia’s wordless dance, but a closer look shows a pronounced pain in his movement. In the video his character is literally caged, unable to escape torment, visibly frustrated, symbolizing any number of Shia’s hardships in reality. The video is only a few minutes long, but it provides valuable insight into Shia’s mental and emotional battlefield.
Peanut Butter Falcon, out later this month, seems like a feel-good story, but not in a cornball way. It has all the trappings of a classic buddy comedy, except Shia’s character is heavily bearded, and thus is likely a fugitive with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. The trailer features a roaming Bearded Shia with a shotgun, and initial reviews have been favorable. Seems par for the course, sign me up.
8. Sketchy haircut Shia// Daddy Shia // Zaddy Labeouf
Honey Boy comes out in November. It’s a film loosely-based on Shia’s real life and his struggles with his father. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year, and the reactions so far have been overly positive. Shia wrote the screenplay while in rehab, and the newly-released trailer shows him with an OUTRAGEOUS haircut, playing the role of his own father.
I grew up on these different Shia’s; the Disney Channel Shia helped shape my childhood, adolescent Shia taught me some valuable lessons about growing up, and despite all the tabloids and public outbursts, I still believe in Shia Labeouf.
We’ve officially reached peak Shia, let the Shiassance begin.