You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

A Boy’s Life

Latest opus by documentarian Rory Kennedy follows two years in the lives of a poor Europa, Miss., family, beginning as the story of a disturbed little boy and his interaction with social services and winding up as a disquieting exercise in American Gothic. Docu, skedded to air on HBO in 2004, should attract a lot of attention on fest circuit.

Latest opus by award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy (“American Hollow”) follows two years in the lives of a dirt-poor Eupora, Miss., family, beginning as the story of an emotionally disturbed little boy and his interaction with the social services network and winding up as a disquieting exercise in American Gothic. Docu, skedded to air on HBO in 2004, should attract a lot of attention on fest circuit.

Robert Oliver, a troubled 7-year-old, sees a psychiatrist and has been diagnosed with numerous emotional and behavioral disorders. His grandmother Anna, with whom he and younger brother Benji live, speaks of the many dogs and cats he has killed and describes his frequent attempts at suicide. Early scenes show a hyperactive Robert shouting, gesturing wildly and hitting his head against assorted surfaces. He’s on two types of medication, which his grandmother often has to shove down his throat. His mother, Robanna, who was raped when she was 15 by Robert’s father and has physical and emotional problems of her own, has battled her mother for custody of the boys; the two, who live near each other, bicker constantly. Social Services hovers, visiting occasionally, temporarily content to have the child monitored by his psychiatrist.

Transferred to a new school, Robert suddenly becomes a model student, making the honor roll, interacting with classmates and behaving like a normal first-grader. But Anna isn’t buying it. She’s convinced Robert will revert to his erratic self-destructiveness. At home, he continues to act out and, on a visit to Anna’s house, his new principal (one of the all-female flock of caregivers in Robert’s life) counters Anna’s dire predictions by suggesting to Robert that he try bringing “school Robert” back home.

By now, filmmaker has planted hints that perhaps Robert is not the problem, with early warning flags including fact that Robert and Benji sleep in Anna’s bed. One particularly horrific segment has Anna drag Robert outside and tightly squeeze him until the child becomes hysterical and begs her to release him. She interprets his resistance as anger toward school, and exhorts him to “let it out.” Anna is later hospitalized with deep bruises up and down her legs, which she says were caused in preventing Robert from killing himself.

Kennedy builds her horror story slowly, revelations seemingly occurring to professionals, the filmmaker and the viewer simultaneously. While Robert fades into normality, Anna never ceases to morph in strangely irregular, fascinating ways. At Robert’s birthday party, she limps around like a ghost, ignored by the boys she caresses. Robert’s psychiatrist has tentatively diagnosed Anna with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, suggesting she reported or induced illness in Robert in order to give herself a crusade.

Tech credits are fine. Joel Goodman’s music is low-key and evocative.

A Boy's Life

Production: An HBO presentation of a Moxie Firecracker production. Produced by Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy. Directed by Rory Kennedy. Co-directed by Nick Doob.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Doob; editor, Charlton McMillan; music, Joel Goodman; sound, Kennedy. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 24, 2003. Running time: 77 MIN.

More Film

  • FX's 'Snowfall' Panel TCA Winter Press

    John Singleton Hospitalized After Suffering Stroke

    UPDATED with statements from John Singleton’s family and FX Networks John Singleton, the Oscar nominated director and writer of “Boyz N’ the Hood,” has suffered a stroke. Sources confirm to Variety that Singleton checked himself into the hospital earlier this week after experiencing pain in his leg. The stroke has been characterized by doctors as [...]

  • 'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow

    'Curse of La Llorona' Leads Slow Easter Weekend at the Box Office

    New Line’s horror pic “The Curse of La Llorona” will summon a solid $25 million debut at the domestic box office, leading a quiet Easter weekend before Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” hits theaters on April 26. The James Wan-produced “La Llorona,” playing in 3,372 theaters, was a hit with hispanic audiences, who accounted for nearly 50% [...]

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content