“To see ‘Best Boy’ is to participate in the lives of other people and to learn just a little more about being human.” -Roger Ebert
Ira Wohl’s “Best Boy” documentary trilogy is—at the very least—a most unconventional cinematic trilogy. However, at its best, Wohl’s trifecta is an endearing and often tear-jerking endeavor into understanding the ‘other.’ With three documentary films that span 37 years, Wohl profoundly depicts the complex dynamic of those who live with mental illness and their families who must adjust. Here, Ira follows the journey of his developmentally disabled cousin Philly Wohl and his parents, whom he has been dependent upon from birth. Beginning with “Best Boy,” which won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, Wohl captures Philly at age 50—fun-loving and full of spirit— living a fulfilled lifestyle against all odds.
In “Best Man,” Ira revisits his cousin Philly 20 years later where he continues to live happily, healthy but independently from the home he knew for the first 50 years of his life.
With Philly more self-aware of himself and those around him, “Best Man” is an inspiring progression of courage and determination reaped from the fruits of a loving support system.
Part of Philly’s support system was, of course, his sacrificial sister Frances, the remarkable subject of “Best Sister.” The bittersweet final chapter to this emotive trilogy, “Best Sister” grounds audiences with the realities of death, letting go and the fleeting nature of life itself. It’s an unexpected way to end a decades-long journey centered on a life fulfilled but is fitting nonetheless, as it reminds us that it really does take a village to raise a child.
Though it is above all, a coming-of-age story made only possible with an unconditionally loving eye, “Best Boy” continues to be used by universities and colleges across the country as an invaluable teaching tool in departments of social work, psychology, psychiatry, medicine, and special education, among others, because it conveys a complexity of emotions inherent in such delicate situations.
“Rarely has mental illness been depicted so subjectively and seemed so immediate: John’s daily struggle to determine what’s real and what isn’t becomes as palpable as it is poignant.”
–Ken Fox, TV Guide
John Cadigan lives life with schizophrenia, but that did not prevent him from making a film about it. In his self-directed documentary film, “People Say I’m Crazy” Cadigan reveals that “A lot of times [his] paranoia comes in the form of thinking people hate [him], thinking people don’t like [him] just because of the way they look at [him] or because of what they do with their hands…” Schizophrenia is hard to fathom, yet for ten years, John mustered the courage to document his life after he was diagnosed.
“People Say I’m Crazy” is the result of these efforts, a film that has become a touchstone for showing the human side of mental illness.
With the help of Academy Award-winning director Ira Wohl, whose 1979 documentary about his mentally disabled cousin continues to be shown throughout universities as a teaching tool for special education and studies in psychology, Cadigan cuts a visual story from a similar cloth, albeit not one that encompasses all mental illness. Though it is a personal, and at times, invasive look into pain and struggle, Cadigan’s self-documentation proves that people with mental illness cannot only survive, but thrive amongst everyone else.