Honey Boy and the effects of trauma on one’s experience of time
TW: Mention of trauma, abuse and sexual violence
The first time I watched Honey Boy it was, in short, devastating. I thought about it for the next few days, turning scenes over in my mind more than once, thinking about how my body felt in reaction to each scene. What I found myself contemplating most was the shifts in time that took place throughout the film, and how well Honey Boy presented how disjointed time can feel in the wake of traumatic experiences.
Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf’s devastating depiction of childhood familial tensions, addiction that is passed down through generations, and the harrowing effects these can have on a person’s path to adulthood. Honey Boy is centred around its protagonist Otis, who we see inhabiting two realities, one as the young child star when he was just beginning his ascent to stardom, and the other as the present-day young adult who has worked hard to establish his career, but has faced difficulties on his journey to the top.
Honey Boy is not the first film, nor will it be the last, to run the past and present against one another, lurching back and forth between each time period. But when you understand trauma and the force of its lingering presence, this time switching takes on a new form altogether. Dr. Stolorow has explored this phenomenon, explaining that “trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary linearity and unity of our experience of time.” It’s sometimes subtle, small enough to be brushed off, but sometimes it’s abrupt and unable to be ignored, like in the moments when flashbacks wash over you and root you in a moment you don’t want to relive.
22-year-old Otis is seen being sentenced to a stay in a rehab facility after he has been arrested for causing dangerous accidents whilst under the influence one too many times. He is assigned a probation officer who will provide him with a number of therapy sessions to try and address any underlying causes of his binging. Otis is astounded when she suggests that he is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that can often be triggered by a traumatic event, asking “PTSD? For what?” Otis’ roommate in the rehab facility is also surprised by this diagnosis, stating “I thought only soldiers and black people got that?” By exposing a common misconception, Honey Boy does well to prove that trauma can be experienced by anyone, anywhere.
Otis’ probation worker asks him to begin transcribing his memories of the childhood he had with his dad, James. Otis is hesitant to move forward with the task and it can seem futile to agonise over what has already passed but diving back into a painful past in order to understand one’s present is a well-known therapeutic technique. As Otis begins to unravel his childhood, we can detect the insidious ways trauma can alter one’s experience of time. Through the constant flip-flopping between his memories and the present day, we bear witness to the way traumatic experiences can seep into our present. Trauma, at its inception, plants roots in our being that ensure no matter how much time passes, they can still be felt.
In some scenes, the marks of abuse that Otis suffers at the hands of his father seem small enough to miss, like the hard shove with which his dad jerks Otis when he leans his head on his dad whilst cuddling his waist on their motorbike ride home, or Otis’ dad’s comment that Otis has a “baby trickle of urine” that Otis should be ashamed of. Otis’ probation officer is asking him to consider these memories in order to discover the moments that trigger Otis negatively, so that this knowledge can be used to avoid future painful situations. Dr. Stolorow calls these ‘portkeys,’ explaining that ‘portkeys to trauma return us again and again to an experience of traumatization.’
Throughout the film, it becomes unclear in what way Otis is experiencing his memories. Memories seem to blend with Otis’ reality and we often see him waking up sharply, unsettling the narrative and the watcher as we are forced to contemplate whether Otis is reliving these memories as nightmares. According to Dr. Stolorow, this disjointed narrative is also a common product of trauma since ‘the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, completely different from the ones that others inhabit.’
When Otis is struggling with his reaction to his memories whilst in therapy, his probation officer asks him to note aloud four objects that he can see whilst snapping a rubber band against his wrist. This process is an attempt to ground Otis in the present, again demonstrating that trauma has the capability to drag one out of the normal experience of time. As Otis progresses through his therapy sessions this task is met with varying degrees of engagement, signalling the non-linear experience of therapy and recovery that is common for so many people. There are some days where Otis finds it easy to remain grounded and focus on his surroundings in the present, but on other days the emotions he experiences from recounting trauma make it difficult to focus, or even want to.
For Otis’ mother, who is never seen but is heard, only briefly, on the phone with James, trauma seems to have forced her into an experience of time that is a repetitive cycle of remembering. Otis’ father explains in an AA meeting that during one of his darkest episodes he scared Otis’ mother so much that she was forced to jump out of the car in order to avoid being raped by him. Though she says whilst on the phone that she “has long forgiven him” for this event, James becomes enraged at its mention and declares that she “brings it up every fucking time.” The trauma of being forced so close to sexual violence has left her with a never-ending time machine in the form of Otis’ father. Though she claims to have forgiven him, and he has served his time for the crime, James’ comment suggests that for her, James is a portkey whose presence drags her out of the present and back to a more traumatic moment, and in this way trauma has stolen her ability to remain steadfast in the here and now.
Although Honey Boy focuses primarily on the trauma that Otis has had to face, the choice to include scenes depicting his father James at his Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings illustrates well the cruel ways that trauma can trickle down through time, impacting more than one generation of the same family. This experience, known generally as transgenerational trauma, is not uncommon but also not always explicitly defined in popular culture. James explains to the group that his mother dated a woman who was physically abusive towards the two of them, and whilst he minimalizes this dynamic by labelling it “just drama,” it becomes clear that he was not free from trauma’s clutches either, as he reveals “I’m trying my best… for that kid. But I’m in pain like a motherfucker.”
Honey Boy is a difficult watch because the feelings it produces are visceral. Its intimate exploration of the nature of trauma is sure to leave an impression on those who watch it, regardless of whether they are familiar with the experiences depicted. It provides an honest portrayal of the way trauma can spill over between family members, causing repercussions to vibrate across generations and time itself, morphing into different forms of pain. Trauma is shown to possess enough power to control one’s experience of time, forcing its victim into a separate temporality, where they are pulled at random towards moments of time that have long passed.