The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Boy Who Could Fly” is a movie with a great deal of sentimentality. But that’s the point. This movie didn’t need to hint out the moral to its story—it just says it out loud in the final scene. What you’ll be more impressed with is how magical it seems, given that it takes place in everyday suburban life. It’s touching, it moves, and you feel good by the time the movie is over. You either get into it, or you don’t. I did.

As the title suggests, there is a boy and he could fly. But here’s the real situation—the teenage boy, named Eric (Jay Underwood), is autistic and is constantly sitting out on his windowsill, pretending to fly. Sometimes he will even go to the roof of his own house and pretend. According to a teacher at school, Eric’s parents died in a plane crash and Eric started to pretend to fly at that exact moment, as if he could’ve saved them. Eric lives in an urban home with his constantly-drunken uncle Hugo (Fred Gwynne), who isn’t abusive but more confused because of the alcohol. He claims he has seen the boy fly, but then again, he sees a lot of things. And then there’s the story of how Eric may have flown up to a power pole to hide a neighbor’s BB gun, as well as a situation in which he is sitting at the main character’s window and when the main character turns away and back, he’s back on his own windowsill. Can he really fly? Who knows?

The main character—a 14-year-old girl named Milly Michaelson (played by Lucy Deakins)—is already told the stories about Eric’s parents and Eric’s actual flying. She also sees him pretend to fly while sitting on his windowsill. Since she moved into the house next door to Eric, she can’t help but wonder about him. She suddenly feels like it’s her responsibility to watch out for him—she’s the one who “rescues” Eric from the roof of the house (I used quotation marks because Uncle Hugo says later that he couldn’t fall). As time goes by, she and Eric become close with one another. She seems to be the only thing that can break Eric free of his world of fantasy. First he mimics her every move, then (slowly but naturally) realizes what he’s doing and tries to do his best around her. But the problem is, you never can tell what he’s thinking or even if he’s thinking. He only cares about flying…and right now, he also cares about Milly. At one point, he catches a fly ball that almost hits Milly in the head so you can tell he can set his mind to one thing, even if that one thing is caring for Milly’s wellbeing.

Then something happens. Milly is saved from almost certain death when she slips and falls off the side of the bridge while reaching for a flower. The only one that could have saved her life was Eric, who was with her at the time…and the only way he could’ve possibly saved her is if he flew.

“The Boy Who Could Fly” does a nice job of setting up its story by introducing the characters. Milly has moved into this urban neighborhood (complete with white picket fences and identical houses) with her single mother (Bonnie Bedelia) and little brother Louis (Fred Savage). The father, revealed in a scene with a cameo by Louise Fletcher as a psychiatrist, had committed suicide when he realized he had cancer, leaving the family in dismay. Milly is in high school trying to fit in with the snobby types all around her; her mother is back to doing her job in the insurance company but doesn’t know how to use a computer; and feisty Louis has his own little adventures as he tries to get around the block on his tricycle (bullies and a Rottweiler keep stopping him). We’re also introduced to Milly’s nice teacher (Colleen Dewhurst), who believes Milly can get through to Eric when no one else can.

This seems like the kind of movie Frank Capra would have liked to make—a movie that actually tells a story with compelling characters and a neat storyline. The ending, though, is somewhat preposterous but to be fair, you can already see it coming even if you don’t want to. But I was satisfied, nonetheless. In fact, before I was typing this, I was considering a three-star rating for this. I know now that I would much rather rate it three-and-a-half. That’s the kind of impression this movie left on me.

Another reason this movie works is acting, especially with the lead performance by Lucy Deakins. Deakins is wonderful as Milly. Every line of dialogue she says, you believe her. She’s so warm, empathetic, pretty, sensitive, and believable. I liked Jay Underwood, controlled and convincing as Eric; Bonnie Bedelia, convincing as a housewife mourning her dead husband; and Fred Savage who has a watchable kinetic energy to his performance.

I guess I should tell you the moral (if you want the movie to tell you itself, stop reading): if you believe and love long enough, anything is possible. It’s not subtle, but I got into it anyway because everything leading up to it. It earned its message, and “The Boy Who Could Fly” is a treasure of a movie.

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