There’s something about Disney stars going bad that makes for such addicting media fodder. Young people shed their wholesome baby faces to make way for chiseled features paired with a matured presence emphasizing sexual confidence for girls, virility for boys. The transition is a gateway to Hollywood’s big leagues, and is rarely a smooth one. For Shia Labeouf, let’s just say that I’d like to give him a big hug.
Like so many Disney child stars, Labeouf was a comic relief playing Louis in Even Stevens. Nerdy yet quick quips went well his defined Jew-fro; he was your best friend’s dorky younger brother with spaghetti sauce stains on his tattered T-Rex t-shirt, giddy to show you his rock collection and pompously show off how many facts about the solar system he knows. He was as adorkable as adorkable could get.
And he was still this adorkable as Sam Witwicky in the Transformers franchise alongside Megan Fox. Albeit this time a little older, a little taller, Jew-fro a little cleaner as a spazzy, motor mouthed teenager, Labeouf still charmed audiences as the nerdy kid who saved the world and got the hot girl – a narrative people have always loved. Rumor mills pumped out a real life romance between Laboeuf and sex symbol Fox, nudging him more and more towards the top of the industry’s most wanted. Dorky was only a sweet kind of distillation to Labeouf’s virility. And then he got a little too famous.
Labeouf’s popularity rose in baby steps; Hollywood still shined more light on the deliberately sexy muscle meatheads and disaffected scowlers. But like all the good ones, his growing confidence swallowed his self-awareness whole. And apologizing for his lack of self-awareness, ironically, got him into the most trouble.
A plagiarism scandal that tarnished his directorial debut HowardCantour.com brought out all kinds of fussy feedback. Labeouf tweeted back-handed apologies, hired a plane to fly a sarcastic apology on a banner across the sky, and organized a seemingly subversive act of performance art in Los Angeles in which he dons a paper bag over his head that read “I am not famous anymore” in bold block letters. Attendees lifted the paper bag from off his head to reveal Labeouf with red puffy orbitals around his crying eyes. No dialogue; no nothing. Just him in his sorry element.
Credit should still be given where credit is due, though. Fame may have created an entitled machine of a man-child, but that’s not to say it was completely unearned. Labeouf chose serious roles to top off his ripened image, including a role in the coming-of-age New York City period piece A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Labeouf plays Dito, opposite Channing Tatum, as a misguided young adult who ultimately runs away from home to find himself far from his drug-addled friends running the streets of a once grittier, pre-Giuliani New York.
Labeouf’s roles away from dorky cute to serious adult is also evident in his role as Jacob in New York, I Love You. A boyish bellhop aiding a retired opera singer, Jacob is sensitive and poignant – miles away from the tabloid’s passive-aggressive golden boy with nonchalance to prove that won him his more notorious reputation.
Yes, Labeouf’s fame does rest on its own credible merits, too. So maybe we can call him passionate instead of crazy. Eager instead of aggressive. Self-confident and not entitled. Regardless, I’ll still give him that much-needed hug.
Written by Dara Kim