It’s about Lee’s life and the immeasurable impact of her 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but, really, it’s a film about how Lee will forever remain just out of our reach.
Now 85, the author is less of a recluse than a woman who just keeps to herself in her home town of Monroeville, Ala. Not long after the instant success of her novel about a miscarriage of justice in an Alabama courtroom — and its effect on a young girl and the small town she lived in — she turned away from the allure of New York-centric fame and chose a mode of lifelong contemplative retreat.
She spent the past five decades (and counting) with barely a published word to her name (a few essays in the 1960s, an open letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006) and, despite the occasional anticipatory rumor, never released another novel. She just let it go.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” orbits in a literary stratosphere of permanence. Practically everyone who can read has read it. Most who have are in some way moved by the book or have had their opinion of racial equality shaped by it — or by the near-flawless 1962 movie adaptation of it. Even now, the Scout Finch in most of us will thumb through “To Kill a Mockingbird,” hoping to recover some sense of the topography that exists between right and wrong.
“Hey, Boo” is mainly a cultural study, bolstered by good interviews from a range of famous writers, thinkers and historians, but it also neatly balances the duty of biography with a look into some lingering mysteries about Lee and her work, absent an interview with the author herself. Lee hasn’t given a full interview in almost 50 years, not even to Winfrey, who took her to lunch at the Four Seasons in New York years ago and made her best (and nevertheless futile) pitch.
The film recounts Nelle Harper Lee’s upbringing, with its many parallels to “Mockingbird”: the lawyer father, who served in Alabama’s state legislature; the small-town life; the plain lessons apparent in everyday Southern race relations of the 20th century; the misfit neighbor who came to live with his aunt and, in one of American literature’s wildest coincidences, grew up to be Truman Capote.
Almost as good as an interview with Lee is an interview with her centenarian sister, Alice Finch Lee, whose voice has been reduced to a melodic gurgle but whose lucid insights into Harper’s motivations and post-“Mockingbird” life are telling. Another smart move the film makes is to let its sources — among them Andrew Young, James McBride, Anna Quindlen, Richard Russo, Allan Gurganus, Rick Bragg, Wally Lamb, Roseanne Cash, Tom Brokaw, Diane McWhorter and Lizzie Skurnick — talk at some length about and even deconstruct passages from the novel that still resonate.