Documentary Masterpieces: Best Boy

Ira Wohl’s Best Boy is a fine, moving example of personal documentary filmmaking, what Albert and David Maysles, two of the most able practitioners of the method, call “direct cinema.” The film is about three crucial years in the life of Wohl's cousin Philly, a man of 52 who has been mentally challenged since birth.

The film demonstrates how little we understand mental problems today. Philly has lived with his parents all his life, except for two years he spent in an institution as a boy, but he remembers those institution days with detail.

Wohl gives shape to the film as much in his family relationship as Philly's cousin as in his capacity as the filmmaker. He suggests that Philly's parents agree to send Philly to a day-training center and after the death of his father, to a home where Philly can live. Best Boy is a film about a young man preparing to leave home for the first time, but in this case, the young man is 52.

Best Boy records Philly's first forays away from home, although he's in the company of his cousin, the filmmaker. There are interviews with psychologists, teachers and counselors, all of whom are on their best behavior in front of the camera. But the camera's presence is not the reason for the film's benign, almost sweet manner. There's Philly himself, whom Wohl obviously is fond of and concerned about. The film, however, is more than the story of Philly, it's about what constitutes a family.

Best Boy won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, and a number of other festival awards. The film was shot on 30 occasions during a 3-year period, and traces Philly's development as well as his shifting relationships to his family. Although it's a documentary, it's also a dramatic story, recounted with intimacy by one participant.

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