Winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of its year, the straightforward but deeply moving Best Boy encompasses not only some of the highest aspirations of nonfiction storytelling, but also, in an unpretentious way, some of the highest aspirations of the popular arts. Telling the story of a mentally challenged man’s difficult journey from isolation to a sort of independence, it’s a profound testament to the bond between a mother and her child, with all the joy and sadness that connection implies. Filmmaker Ira Wohl made the film to record his efforts to help a cousin, 52-year-old Philly Wohl, transition from his parents’ house to a group home. At the beginning of the picture, Philly enjoys a loving but sheltered existence with his aging parents, Max and Pearl. Given his severe impairments, Philly is childlike, capable of managing little more than everyday grooming functions and a few simple chores. Yet he’s affectionate and he projects contentment, so Best Boy doesn’t play for cheap audience sympathy. Rather, the film asks viewers to enter Philly’s world while also forcing viewers to consider larger questions of what responsibility society has with regard to providing for citizens who cannot provide for themselves.
To the extent of their abilities, since both are diminished by age and illness, Max and Pearl give Philly a comfortable home life. With Ira’s prodding—the filmmaker appears in a few scenes and provides narration throughout—the doting parents acknowledge plans must be made for Philly in the event of their deaths. This realization triggers the most heartbreaking element of the story, because Max and Pearl have to begin their separation from Philly while they’re still alive, lest he find himself completely overwhelmed trying to make a transition without their support. It’s giving nothing away to say that Max died partway through production of the documentary, since he’s in poor health from the earliest scenes, but when Max goes, the emotional aspect of the movie becomes even more powerful, because viewers can see that, all along, it was Pearl who provided the familial lifeline for her “best boy,” as she calls Philly.
The last half-hour of the picture, give or take, is simultaneously inspiring and wrenching, because just as Philly begins to adjust to his new life in a group home—replacing familiar patterns with new ones—Pearl crumbles, partially from the loneliness of an empty home and partially from the realization that she’s no longer solely responsible for Philly’s welfare. Only the most hard-hearted viewers will be able to resist Best Boy’s power. The film starts slowly, using conversations and vignettes to establish the particulars of Philly’s circumstances, and the intimacy with which Ira presents the story gives the early scenes a home-movie quality. (In one sweet scene, Philly, who often hums the Fiddler on the Roof score, attends a performance of the play and meets star Zero Mostel backstage.)
The longer Ira stays with the story, the more intense and relevant Best Boy becomes. After all, but for the availability of a publicly funded group home, Philly’s options might have included homelessness or institutionalization. Yet the story’s heavier implications are rarely stated outright, since Ira keeps his focus on the day-to-day reality of helping Philly find his place in the world. Accordingly, the climax—played, like the rest of Best Boy, without unnecessary dramatic adornment—is devastatingly sad and surpassingly uplifting all at once. Ira Wohl returned to the subject matter of this film for two follow-up documentaries, Best Man: ‘Best Boy’ and All of Us Twenty Years Later (1997) and Best Sister (2006).
Best Boy: RIGHT ON