- Movie Rating -

Best Boy (1979)

| March 28, 1980

Ira Wohl’s Best Boy is a prime illustration of the greatness of the documentary format.  More daring than a fictional script, more personal than any news broadcast, it takes us inside of a real life – a very specific life – and lets the participants tell their own story in their own way.

The Oscar winner of the Best Documentary Feature of 1979, Best Boy is a portrait of Philly Wohl, a man with an intellectual disability (commonly referred to as mental retardation) who faces a transition from the comfortable nest of his parent’s home and into a facility that will take care of him when they are someday gone.  This isn’t a simple-minded narrative that asks you to sympathize with a man with an affliction; like all great documentaries, it goes beyond its surface subject matter and deals whole-cloth with the eternal, tethered bond between mother and child and the inevitabilities that life is heir to.

The film is very personal.  Director Ira Wohl set out to chronical the transition of 52-year-old Philly, his cousin whose life in his parent’s comfortable home are seen for all of their housekeeping details.  Philly’s mind remains a child, and we see him doing the few independent tasks that he is able to do, his daily hygienic routine and a few scattered chores.  He loves his parents dearly and they love him, but the reality does not set with Philly that his parents are entering an age when their ailments will prevent them from giving him the help that he needs.

Wohl is a very smart filmmaker because he doesn’t reach for cheap sentimentality, holding on a hug with mama while music plays underneath.  Rather as his film explores Philly’s world, it reaches for the larger questions of how our society is providing for people like him.  What are we doing to ensure that people with disabilities are getting the care that they need?  Sure, we are our brother’s keepers, but what are we doing about it?

This is the kind of story no screenwriter could ever conceive, especially the focus on Philly’s parents.  Pearl and Max who love their son fiercely and honestly but they know that this transition must be done carefully, while they are still around to guide him to his new home – doing so after their deaths, they feel, would be devastating to Philly.  The brings about some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments but at the same time, the most honest.

The film has unexpected moments.  Max dies halfway through the film and there is a dynamic shift in the parental adherence.  Both he and Pearl have always been at the wheels when it comes to the care of their son but when Max is gone, that doesn’t mean that Pearl becomes a wallflower.  We can see that she has been Philly’s great champion all along.  She is the great light in his life.

In a lot of ways, the back half of the movie belongs to Pearl.  Philly goes to a group home in order to adjust to his new life and that leaves Pearl alone for the first time.  We can feel the emptiness in her daily routine without Philly and without Max.  I defy anyone to keep a dry eye.

There is so much subtlety to this film.  Wohl doesn’t stab at easy emotions, he knows that Philly’s story doesn’t need it.  Yet, the most even-handed element that he gives to Best Boy is the one that hangs over the entire film – what might happen to Philly without a home to go to?  Where would he be?  An institution?  An alleyway.  Wohl leaves us with questions, and with the reminder that we are our brother’s keeper.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized