Best Boy: Directed by Ira Wohl

Director’s Motivation

“Best Boy” chronicles three crucial years in the life of filmmaker Ira Wohl’s cousin Philly, a man of 52 who has been mentally retarded since birth, and who has lived with his parents all his life. Wohl realized his cousin should be made more independent in preparation for the eventual death of his parents. Wohl spoke to Philly’s parents, who also recognized that for Philly’s sake “something” needed to be donebut what

Wohl confesses that he had hardly noticed Philly as he had grown up, except as someone in the background. Then one day, at a family party, shocked at the disrespect of another relation in telling Philly to shut up, prompted him to think more seriously and affectionately about Philly’s problems. 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.

Process of Filmmaking

Wohl records Philly’s first forays away from home. There are interviews with psychologists, teachers, and counselors. The camera’s presence is not the reason for the film’s benign tone and participants’ “good” behavior. We get a close look at Philly, whom Wohl obviously is fond of and concerned about. Philly’s effort towards greater self-sufficiency makes for a genuinely human and touching drama. The film goes beyond the story of Philly, however; it’s about his whole family–and families in general.

Wohl’s main concern was not the making of a film but a desire to help Philly. The camera’s presence and that of his cousin provided a sense of security for Philly, as he took his important first steps towards independent life. Instinctively trusting his cousin, Philly felt secure knowing Wohl was going to be there. Wohl thinks this made it easier for Philly to take all those steps, which required a lot of courage on his part.

Shot on 30 occasions during a three-year period, “Best Boy” traces Philly’s development as well as his shifting relationships to his family. In the process, Wohl becomes more of a “director” of Philly’s life than a director of this particular film; Wohl shapes wide-ranging events rather than s specific scenes. The family appreciated this fact and grew comfortable with the camera, perceiving it as an effective means towards developing Philly’s potential.

Wohl claims that there were occasions during filming when he would get “directoritis” and try to make something happen, or steer things a certain way. These instances always failed miserably, however. He felt the strongest dichotomy between being a family member and a filmmaker when his uncle Max died. Wohl said he knew he had to include some kind of scene about Max’s death (he shoots the actual burial), but felt quite ghoulish about doing it.

After Max’s death, Wohl moves from behind the camera to the foreground, where he urges Philly’s 78-year-old mother Pearl to consider separation from Philly. Wohl has found a home where Philly could continue to function when his mother dies. Wohl did not want to be the one to tell his aunt this, but there was no one else.

The achievement of “Best Boy” is all the more admirable, considerable the production conditions: Wohl had no budget, begged or borrowed 16mm stock, and for months, had no money to print the material already shot.

Critical Reaction

Ira Wohl’s “Best Boy” is what Al and David Maysles, two of the most able practitioners of the method, call “direct cinema.” Although it’s a documentary, it’s also a dramatic story, recounted with intimacy by one of its participants. Ultimately, as Vincent Canby pointed out in the New York Times, “Best Boy” demonstrates how little we understand mental retardation.

The social function of the filming process, the presence of the three-man crew, became part of what Wohl was doing for Philly, and an accepted part of Philly’s environment. Wohl’s film was not–and is not–a show so much as a loving tribute to the complex relationships that link together a group of people despite inherent tensionsreal or perceived.


The film played at many festivals, including the prestigious New York Film Festival. “Best Boy” won the Oscar Award for Best Documentary, and received the D.W. Griffith Award for “The Most Human and Moving Film of the Year” from the National Board of Review/Films in review Magazine.


Pearl had the opportunity to see “Best Boy” just before she died, in February 1980, a few months after the film was completed. Wohl says he’s gratified by the fact that Philly “seems to be getting brighter,” and that the film has led many relatives of retarded people “out of the closet,” eager to share their own turbulent family experiences.