HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO Max, Max — the name may change, but the search for compelling new shows to watch remains the same. Primetimer is taking some of the guesswork out of the equation with our regular feature To the Max, where we'll share recommendations for classic shows, underrated gems, and water-cooler series.
Directed by Dan Hartley, David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived is a story of tragedy and perseverance in the face of some truly unfair circumstances. It's far from the first documentary about a person who survived a tragic accident, David Holmes makes for a singularly compelling subject, and not merely for the way he's able to articulate his life before and after the accident that paralyzed him.
Holmes was a teen gymnast from Essex who got the opportunity of a lifetime, right at the same time another kid from London was also getting his. That was Daniel Radcliffe, who at age 11 was cast as Harry Potter to huge fanfare. David Holmes was cast as his stunt double. The two worked together through six movies, but on the seventh and penultimate film, Holmes was paralyzed in a stunt gone terribly wrong.
The Boy Who Lived, on which both Radcliffe and Holmes serve as executive producers, is a kind but unsparing look at the stunt double’s devotion to his job, the friendships he made and kept while working on the Harry Potter films, and the slow-moving devastation that followed his accident. It centers on a mostly positive and life-affirming person who nonetheless isn't afraid to touch on the essential darkness of his story. It's not just another marketing tool from inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which should convince HBO and its parent company Warner Bros. Discovery that they don't have to shy away from the darker aspects of the Harry Potter universe just because they have dealings with its controversial creator.
Hartley's film makes great use of archival video from Holmes' youth gymnast days, interviews with his parents, and a ton of behind-the-scenes footage while filming the Potter films. That's the kind of access you only get if Daniel Radcliffe is one of your EPs. The film couldn't really exist without it. Holmes and Radcliffe, along with fellow stunt performers like Marc Mailley and stunt coordinator Greg Powell, speak with such passion about their time together on set. But it’s the footage of the four tumbling and laughing and jostling with each other that shows how formative an experience it was, and why their friendships have endured. Every clip of Holmes zipping around on a wire atop a Quidditch broom or being tossed onto foam rocks to battle a dragon in Goblet of Fire shows how much he loved his work. "What a great job," he says, looking back. "You get paid to play."
The moment that changed the course of Holmes' life occurred while filming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and while Hartley spares the audience footage of that very moment, he walks us right up to the edge. It's stomach-turning: Holmes was yanked backwards too fast on a wire stunt and broke his neck. He lost all sensation in his lower extremities and has been paralyzed ever since. But it's what came after the accident that makes up the most harrowing and bleak parts of the movie.
"Paralysis is like being stuck in a prison cell," Holmes says at one point. "In my case, the cell keeps getting smaller and smaller." He suffered a post-surgical complication that happens in only 1% of patients, a spinal cyst that threatened to cut off parts of his nervous system and would have eventually killed him. He's endured multiple surgeries to keep this threat at bay. Radcliffe, quoting Holmes, calls it "the gift that keeps on taking."
The unbreakable friendship between Holmes, Radcliffe, and Mailley is meant to be the silver lining of this dark cloud, but even as the three soldier on and have a laugh and try not to dwell on the worst, it's evident that everyone in Holmes' life is carrying a lot of grief and some measure of guilt for what's happened. This is dark, excruciatingly empathetic stuff. And while the movie stops short of blaming production negligence for the on-set accident, it's still clear that the burden of responsibility falls on the film production. For his part, Holmes has let go of assigning blame, he says because he sees no use in anyone else's life being ruined.
Late in the film, Radcliffe and Holmes make a trip to the Harry Potter prop and costume warehouse to reminisce over items like Slytherin scarves and the sorting hat. "F*ck, man, I love film," Holmes says at last. “I love this job, I love this industry. I love what it's done for me, I love what it's done for other people." He then says to Radcliffe, who has repeatedly referred to moments when he's doubted his post-Potter career path: "Don't give it up, mate." That quote that ends the movie.
But passion for the film industry aside, it's impossible not to finish The Boy Who Lived feeling at least a little bit unsettled about what some people were asked to risk for the Harry Potter franchise. Stunt coordinator Greg Powell, who recruited Holmes to work as a stunt performer when he was just a teen and who supervised the stunts on Potter, still feels tremendous guilt, saying, "I f*cked his life up."
In addition to telling Holmes’ remarkable story, Hartley’s documentary ought also to be a lesson for Warner Bros. Discovery. There are ways to look at the Wizarding World franchise and not just paper over the ugly parts. That's been the big worry ever since HBO announced a TV series based on the original Potter books. J.K. Rowling, author of the books, will serve as an executive producer. HBO chairman Casey Bloys, at a presentation to press and investors last April, indicated that Rowling would be a valuable resource for the team. Whether that means a more substantive role in guiding the creative decision of the series or just that Rowling will be a human Wikipedia every time the script supervisor forgets how to properly pronounce "wingardium leviosa" is unclear.
Regardless, working with J.K. Rowling at this point in history is very much HBO and WBD choosing the financial gains to be had from dipping back into the Potter universe over Rowling’s myriad transphobic statements. Rowling's status as the world's most famous transphobe has made her and her franchise a lightning rod for criticism.
HBO's brass, at least when they were asked about this back in April, chose to be defensive. "I don’t think this is the forum,” Bloys said then. "That’s a very online conversation, very nuanced and complicated and not something we’re going to get into." Setting aside issues of decorum at a press conference, this was an incredibly disappointing stance. A film like The Boy Who Lived suggests things need not be this way. HBO can and has a responsibility to address the Rowling controversy, perhaps even let people like Daniel Radcliffe voice their opposition to Rowling in a public manner.
As much as popular culture has been enriched by the Harry Potter franchise over the years, it's been just as damaged by Rowling's ongoing transphobia. If HBO execs insist that Rowling’s input — and residual checks — are worth all this grief, the very least they can do is allow some filmmaker to take her pivot to TERF-dom to task. The Wizarding World and its fans can surely take it.
David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived premieres Wednesday, November 15 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the documentary in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.