They’re rarely well-made, but documentaries targeted at a specific fanbase will always have their place. Whether the film is about a band or Monopoly or a genre of movies, or even a book, it can depend on those devoted to the subject for viewership. And thanks to wide-reaching markets of the web, these fans can more easily hear about and access films like the warm yet scattered new profile “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'” Mary McDonagh Murphy’s documentary (a companion to her 2010 book “Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird”) looks at the life of Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, reclusive author of only that one seminal publication, and focuses on the writing of the book that went on to become a national treasure, not just in literary form but also as one of the most respected and beloved film adaptations of all time. Interviews with big-name fans like Oprah Winfrey as well as former child actress Mary Badham (Scout in the film) and people from Lee’s life, including her magnificently lovable 98-year-old sister Alice, provide the gist of the content.
But no interview with Lee herself, which is both understandable and frustrating at the same time. I’m reminded immediately of Alex Gibney’s latest, “Catching Hell” (reviewed at Tribeca), which seems to need an interview with infamous Chicago Cubs scapegoat Steve Bartman — for narrative closure as well as a profitable exclusive — yet this would also be a further invasion of his privacy and was obviously unattainable. Lee doesn’t, in the same way, have anyone to answer to, so her appearance is less of a demand, particularly since “Hey, Boo” is primarily a soft-balling, commemorative tribute rather than an attempt at anything very revelatory — even if it promises an “unraveling” of a mysterious life and presents “never-before-seen” museum-ready materials. Still, without the subject on screen at all, films like this can have a more panegyrical feel, as if Lee was dead and being memorialized.
“Hey, Boo” also displays a great problem in trying to make a film about a book, and it definitely relies too much on Robert Mulligan’s film version for visual aid. More forgivable than most cases because of how well-regarded and faithful the adaptation is, there’s nevertheless something wrong about having people read passages of Lee’s text while the respective scene from the film plays out on the screen. This is not a documentary about adaptation or how well this particular book was adapted — though there is room for some direct address of the film, and Murphy does indeed go there. Those readings are supposed to be specifically about the author’s literary craft in and of itself, and in many moments the doc lowers its certainly well-meaning veneration qualities for the sake of something presumed to be more visually interesting. A true honor to Lee and her book would be to stay on the talking heads reading aloud.
On the other hand, the subjective part of me, the guy for whom “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a favorite book, the guy who may soon have a child named for one of its characters, has a hard time denying the appeal of “Hey, Boo,” as its being geared to fans. In that regard I enjoyed the documentary plenty enough. At the same time I agree with a recent tweet from movie blogger Devin Faraci, who wrote, “Don’t support bad stuff just because it’s in a genre you like.” I’m sure he means bad comic book movies (like “Thor”), but the same is true for documentaries, and in particular here it applies to docs catered to a niche audience. Just because “Hey, Boo” can depend on huge “To Kill a Mockingbird” fans like myself to see it doesn’t mean it can skimp on the quality.
I still recommend the film to the fanbase, but more because it must be seen for Alice Lee. She’s my favorite needs-a-film-of-her-own documentary character since David Carr in “Page One.” But I’d suggest you wait for some cheap home-viewing option rather than the theatrical, unless you hope the Lees will turn out for the Mobile, Alabama screenings (not likely). “Hey, Boo” is one of the least theatrically appropriate, cinematic docs I’ve seen in a long time. So just be patient. Eventually Boo will come to you.
“Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'” opens in NYC and LA this Friday and then expands to other cities over the next month (see playdates here). The DVD will be released July 19.
Recommended If You Like: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book and the movie.