When it comes to documentary filmmaking, not every director sees room for nuance within the form. One may just have to hope for a compelling subject, strong interviews and a few familiar faces to add to the narrative. But occasionally, as in the case with Jesse James Miller’s The Good Son: The Life Of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, the director takes a few risks in the art of storytelling and finds ways to invite the audience inside of the film, almost as if the story were his own, or that of a close friend.
The Good Son tells the story of boxing great Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, but because of the director’s willingness to embrace complications within the story and take on myriad subjects at once, The Good Son is also the story of smalltown America from the 1940s to the 1980s. Perhaps most importantly, Miller also tackles the untold story of South Korean boxer Deuk-Koo Kim, and how his fateful match with Ray Mancini changed the face of an American sport.
Much of The Good Son is set in Youngstown, Ohio, with Ray Mancini joined by friends and family who function as experts on the small mill town. Actor Ed O’Neil, also a Youngstown native, helps paint the picture of a time and place where neighbors kept their doors open, and children could often hear their friends getting a lickin’ or two from their folks. “Ray was Youngstown” is a statement echoed throughout the documentary, and understanding his hometown becomes pivotal to understanding Ray’s fighter mentality, as well as his relationship with his father, another boxer and Youngstown legend, Lenny “Boom Boom” Mancini.
In one of the documentary’s more powerful scenes, Ray recites from memory a poem he had written for his father when he was fifteen years old, aptly titled “I Walk In Your Shadow.” As the father’s story unfolds alongside the [good] son’s, it becomes almost eerie to witness Ray’s desire to live up to and exceed—or, rather, enhance—his father’s legacy. Above all, The Good Son is a father/son tale, but viewers will soon learn that the film’s title points both to the story of the two generations of “Boom Boom” Mancinis, as well as to Deuk-Koo Kim and Ji Wan, another father and son who never actually had the chance to meet.
Like many boxing greats, Ray’s life was marred by violence inside and outside of the ring, and there’s a necessary darkness that permeates the film as a result. Many scenes, including some of Ray’s most famous matches, are played out on an old-fashioned television screen in a cheap motel, giving the viewer a sense of the struggle and grind that molded young Ray. Those moments are contrasted against the boxer in the present-day. Now retired and a father of three, viewers look on as Ray returns to many of his old Youngstown haunts, including the arenas where he had his first fights. A powerful sense of nostalgia suffuses these scenes and overwhelms this story of an American hero who suffers in the end, the enormous weight of “the good son”too much for any one man.
The Good Son falters a bit in the end, where the final scenes play a bit too much like a reality television show (though reality television may be more to blame for this than the documentary itself). The great tragedy of the Mancini-Kim match is, in a way, resolved for the first time in Miller’s film, and some moments are so intimate, they almost feel too powerful for a viewing audience to witness. The Good Son surely packs a lot of punches, taking on class issues, the media and press (villains of a sort in the climax of the story), and even family relations, without veering from its focus—the life and times of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. With commentary from Sugar Ray Leonard, Mickey Rourke, and others who witnessed the exceptional journey and career of Youngstown’s finest, another powerful boxing story has been told.
Director: James Lee Miller
Starring: Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Ed O’Neill, Mickey Rourke
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2013