Posted in: Documentary, Film Reviews

Review: Best Boy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

Ira Wohl’s film about his 52-year-old retarded cousin Philly, Best Boy, is a film aware of the extent of intrusion a film crew makes. Philly has lived with his parents for his whole life, completely dependent on them; Ira suggests—especially in view of the parents’ advanced age—that it is time for Philly to prepare to be on his own. From the parents’ agreement to push Philly out into the world, the camera will act as midwife in this birthing of a new individual. Wohl does not allow things to just “happen”: he becomes an onscreen participant, pushing Philly’s progress along. In fact (and I don’t want this read in the wrong, or an excessively emphatic, key), there is even the sense that Philly might never have become world-adapted, that Wohl might never have become really involved, if Wohl as a filmmaker hadn’t needed a film subject to work on. This is nothing that should cloud the achievement on film—merely a tiny, nagging feeling. Wohl is not shy about being manipulative, as evident in a very moving sequence at Philly’s summer camp (it’s the first time Philly has been away from home for an extended period of time). As Philly’s father and mother, Max and Pearl, watch the way their son can take care of himself, can interact with others, we see joy and sadness and pride mingled in their faces. When the group settles down to hear Philly sing “As Time Goes By” (he doesn’t quite know all the words but he makes up his own without a moment’s hesitation), Wohl cuts from face to face, with special emphasis on Max, who has been very ill and who looks worse than the tough, wiry figure he cut at the beginning of the movie. As Philly finishes singing there is a fade to black on Max’s face. The next scene has Pearl telling Philly what we already have been informed of by Wohl’s editing: Max has gone to heaven. This is another magnificent scene; all the elements are there for it to be terribly maudlin, but it is both funny and touching (Pearl: “Will you stop sayin’ ‘Yeah’ and listen to what I’m tryin’ to tell you!” Philly, just cutting her off as he has all through the conversation: “Yeah!”).

Pearl is the kind of person who justifies documentary; I know that my world would have been poorer if I hadn’t made her acquaintance. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes Ira tries to convince her that it’s time for Philly to move out of the house and get a place of his own. Everything in the film makes it clear that without Pearl Philly never would have made it this far; she is unmistakably the driving, inexhaustible force that has kept the family together. Now she is alone and her nephew wants to take her son away from her. With movie cameras watching. Pearl is an actress, she knows how to play this scene, but she also is beginning to realize that Philly probably is going to go away. We, the audience, the camera, can see what Pearl is doing, but we can’t help sympathizing with her, even as we are fully aware that it is best for Philly to move out as soon as possible. Philly finally does get his own place, the camera having served as a prod towards getting him there. Philly himself has never been too uncomfortable with a camera around, having broken off conversations just to amble over and examine a light, or to put his face inquisitively up to the lens. The realization that we see breaking over Philly’s face—the realization that may account for his being so at ease with this machine that accompanies him through much of his waking time—is that somebody is there, looking back.

© 1981 Robert Horton

A film by Ira Wohl.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.