Second Best is a 1994 British film produced by Sarah Radclyffe and directed by Chris Menges. It closely follows the 1991 novel of the same name by David Cook, who also wrote the screenplay.


Graham Holt (William Hurt) is a single man aged 42, who wants to adopt a ten-year-old son. Graham is a sub-postmaster in Warwickshire, England. James Lennards (Chris Cleary Miles) is a disturbed child brought up in Foster care. Graham wants a son, but James doesn't want another father at the time. Graham walks by an agency and starts looking at pictures of children, Being a single man and unmarried he decided maybe adoption is the way to go. He spots James picture and when he sits filling out the forms he is slightly baffled as to why he wrote son. Later in the film he makes a comment to James as to how desperate they must be to be considering himself to be a parent, 'since you can count on one hand the number of single men who wish to adopt.'

Graham Holt's emotional development has been smothered by his uncaring parents. Graham was born to parents who loved each other more than their son, never spending time with him and later on pretending to be interested in him. His mother passes on and a year later his father suffers a stroke which means Graham has to now care for him. Later in a heart felt scene Graham's father passes and James bring out a shell placing it on Graham's ear, the one good memory Graham ever had of his father. This takes place later on in the film.

James has been shifted from foster home to group home throughout his short life. Causing some disruptions and being unable to relate to women. Due to the nature of his past he has a hard time coping, Anger, self-mutilation are just a few things that Happens with young James. He only has a vague memory of his mother when he was aged 3, but has a vivid and romantic image of his father. James’s father is in and out of prison and has spun tales of him being a 'mercenary' in the one time they have spent together on the run. Near the end of the film, James finally dreams and remembers what has happened to his mother.

As Graham goes through the extended vetting process to be an adoptive parent, He then has to attend classes and meet regularly with social workers. Graham and James meet and the embarrassed silences demonstrate Graham's nervousness and James’s fears of the situation. Graham is not sure how to behave, nor what to say, due to being nervous. He talks about wanting a son, and suggests what James needs, ungracefully saying that James need a father, but stammering on the what James needs is that special someone to look after his needs.

Throughout the movie James has flashbacks of his past about his father and his mother. They cause him to act out, from self-mutilation to destruction of property. Asked by Jamie's Key worker, if Graham likes children his reply is ‘Yes but I don't think I could eat a whole one.’ Trying to make a tense situation easier. The Key Worker is cut off from explaining issues about James when James enters the room.

When James is shown the room that would be his if the adoption goes through, it also serves as James room when he starts his visits to Grahams place. He moves towards Graham and places his arms around Graham's waist. He then hugs him briefly. Showing affection for the first time in his young life. James also makes friends in this time with some of the local children racing with a bicycle.

On one trip out in the car, Graham tries to explain how a relationship should work, He explains it should be a partnership, he never mentions love. Graham has to visit key people in Jamie's past; one of them Lynn, a foster mother, who was one of the few females Jamie ever got along with, was disappointed that Jamie would not stop in to see her. She explained to Graham on Jamie's constant running away and finding him partially dressed always hiding in holes and covered in dirt. During this time a flash back scene is shown of Jamie hiding from the police. On the ride home Graham asked Jamie why he liked Lynn when women don't seem to be his cup of tea. Jamie due to having issues starts to self-harm himself, first by scratching it legs with his hand then by trying to jump from the car all the while telling Graham that Lynn is not a proper women. Eventually forcing Graham to stop the car as Jamie tries to jump out.

Jamie convinces Graham that tenting is fun. Jamie stands in the small shop choosing gear while Graham remains outside with his caseworker. She quickly tells Graham to beware of knots for once they are tied they are harder to get out from. It's a happy experience, Jamie plays in a creek while teaching and inept Graham the ways of camping or as the English refer to it as tenting. Jamie tests Graham as well. by finding a stick and giving himself and injury on his forehead. He tells Graham while remembering an experience by his birth father, that the kiss has to be a long one to make it feel better. After Graham asks Jamie if he was testing Graham and Jamie replies 'I often test people.' Unfortunately this is fairly common in the world scope of foster care since nothing is ever permanent. Later that night on the camp out Jamie goes to relieve himself then returns to the tent cold, and slips into the sleeping bag with Graham. Who at the time is dreaming and does not even realize the boy is in with him until he wakes in the morning.

After a few weekends together, Graham takes James to meet Graham's father's brother, Uncle Turpin (John Hurt). Turpin teases James and finally makes him smile. He asks Graham if he has ever apologized to his father, he always hated Grahams mother, since he would never let the father have a moments peace. Graham replied it was a true love to which Turpin replies ‘no’ since she would not even let Grahams father take a whittle on his own. Turpin also asks Graham if he is sure about wanting to adopt, Graham is adamant about it that this is what he wants to do. So James now has a better understanding of Graham, and Graham a better understanding of Jamie.

While their relationship develops it has its ups and downs, nothing shakes Grahams belief that he is the one person who can make all the difference and that between them, they could change each other. Near the end James's father unexpectedly shows up. Graham decides that James should meet his father, that James should know that his father is dying of AID’s so that James would not have to wonder years later as to what had happened to his father. As a new school season is starting Graham is allowed to foster James while the final adoption can take place. In this way James would not have to change schools during the process.

The reunion with James's father does not go well, and James withdraws into himself. Once again the pains of the past taking over as James tries to escape the pain in the only way he knows how. His father is dying from AID's and Graham invites him in and he and James care for him as he lives his last few months. In the end Graham says to Jamie "I won't be second best." As James flips a sign over at a gas station from opened to closed, more a symbol of his past is over and his new life is beginning, as he hurries to catch Graham and places his hand in Grahams. This movie is touching on several levels. It is well worth viewing and seeing just how bad a system can be run and how with the help of kind people a bad situation can turn out good.


Critical reception

It has received 7 out of 10 stars on the Internet Movie Database website and 10 out of 10 on the Rotten Tomatoes site.

Channel 4 (who rated it 4.6 out of 5) wrote: "The powerful and sometimes crippling relationships between fathers and sons is the inspiration behind Menges' worthy drama".


The film was largely made in the small Welsh town of Knighton.

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