Phillip Wohl (“Philly” to his friends and family) is his mother and father’s pride and joy. He is also their overpowering yoke. The youngest of three children, the mentally handicapped man has never attended school, and barely left the Queens apartment where he lives with his overprotective parents. At 52, Philly is an extroverted exercise in overcoming personal limitations. In some ways, his parents are more limited by the effects of age and responsibility than Philly and his cerebral shortcomings. With his caretakers each in their mid-to-late ‘70s, Philly’s future is very much in peril. Without his family, there will be no one to take care of him.
Filmmaking cousin Ira decides to champion a change in Philly’s life (and document the journey along the way). Ira wants Philly to leave home, go to a special school, and be evaluated for placement in a group home. For Philly’s parents Pearl and Max, this news is greeted with begrudging acceptance. They want the finest for their son. But they also can’t imagine a time in their life when he hasn’t been an active, omnipresent part. Philly’s journey into an existence with more options and opportunities is really a story about letting go, having faith in humanity, and knowing that, no matter what happens, the young man you raised will always be your Best Boy.
One of the most remarkable portraits of a family unit in fundamental free-fall, Best Boy can easily be described as a last will and testament to the old fashioned attitude toward the mentally handicapped. Prior to the mid-1970s, those whom society deemed “retarded” or “slow” were often shipped off to homes and hospitals, hidden away like a dark secret in a back closet of the community. In such stark places, the level of care directly coincided with the institution’s idea of the patient’s practical usefulness. No matter what you may think of him in his present, proto-tabloid manifestation, Geraldo Rivera will always be sainted for saving the physically and developmentally disabled from the living Hell that was most state-sanctioned sanitariums. Rivera’s 1971 report on the New York snake pit Willowbrook (forever to be equated with horrifyingly unethical and inhumane treatment) opened the dialogue (and the legislative agenda) for a more principled and sympathetic handling of these sweet, special souls.
Over the years, while the mentally ill have been sidelined, viewed as victims of their own self-indulgent desire to remain insane, the intellectually challenged have gone from handicapped to “handi-capable”, seen as potentially constructive, contributing members of the human race. Best Boy is an allegory for this transition, a version in miniature of this shift in ideals. It admonishes the sheltering of those who are “special” from the rest of the populace, while advocating their eventual re-entry into the real world (even with all its bureaucratic and traumatic consequences). It’s a moving, magnificent window into a realm that most of us have never seen or had any direct contact with.
Best Boy is one of those rarities, a true-life documentary that transcends its basic subject matter and premise to say something universal about the human condition. Like Brother’s Keeper, Hoop Dreams, or Capturing the Friedmans, we soon learn that the initial reason we are watching these individuals has long since taken a backseat to the real interpersonal and character drama now playing out. As Philly moves from total dependency into the first few baby steps of autonomy, the impact on everyone is delightful and devastating. For the last half-century, Philly’s parents have known only caring for, and being the constant companions of, their son. Philly represents their life, their purpose for living. He has been everything from a burden to a bounty. When we meet Philly, he is in limbo, someone his parents rely on to clean the house or wash the dishes. Yet with all these indicators toward independence, his relatives will not relinquish control, considering the possibility of his leaving home unthinkable.
All of their own emotional issues are tied up in him. Philly’s father Max is so down and defeated, quietly pained by his son’s plight that medical maladies are literally eating him alive from the inside out. He is a skeleton of a man, a strong, silent, and stubborn stick figure in a constant state of reflection and rejection. Pearl, on the other hand, is a far more shrewd and suggestive entity, a woman who deeply loves her son while keeping the family spotlight solely on what best serves the adults’ needs, not just Philly’s. There are facets to her personality that reek of Jewish-mother stereotyping: she loves to guilt Philly into focusing attention on her, while subtly manipulates his decisions. You often get the impression that there is nothing between the elder Wohls except the age-old oppression of Philly. It’s interesting how the freedom of school and the excitement of the outside world devastates everyone other than the Best Boy himself. He loves it. The rest of the family can only resolve themselves with waves of weary finality.
But Best Boy is more than just a nuclear family fending off the final meltdown of mortality and change. There are greatly comic moments (Philly experiencing animals at the Bronx Zoo for the first time) and scenes of perfect emotional resonance (Philly meeting Zero Mostel backstage at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof is magical and moving). We never once feel that Philly is being exploited, and his camera-carrying cousin Ira never lets events turn maudlin or sappy. Death is handled with straightforward dignity. Loss is expressed simply and made to be understood. The same goes for happiness and harmony. Best Boy balances out all the emotions that come with change, and channels them into a marvelous statement about resilience and respect.
Much more a movie about aging and family responsibility than a tale of retardation, Best Boy doesn’t really tell a linear story, aside from Philly’s eventual address change. What it really resembles is a sacred scrapbook—a portrait of pain, promise, and persistence presented in animated movie clips. Scenes can and do contradict each other, and the flow is often tossed out of equilibrium by an inserted moment or lengthy shot. But there is a reason for this restlessness, this tone of untapped turmoil. Philly has spent 52 years isolated in a cocoon of smothering care, of “doing the best one can do” to manage an almost unmanageable circumstance. The newfound freedom Philly is feeling is peppered with clashing concerns for Pearl and Max. For them, Philly was everything. Without him, the void is next to impossible to fill. It’s the resolution to this reality that makes Best Boy more than a manifesto for the mentally challenged. At its basic level, it’s just a film about the family struggle over letting go.
Toward the end of Best Boy, Philly’s mother Pearl says that if God really wants to torture someone, He should give them a retarded child. Without blinking an eye, she adds, “You’ll never know the internal pain. Never.” While that may have been true when she said it, it’s hard to imagine that Philly is anything but an inspiration today. This is one special human who really deserves the title Best Boy.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.