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Based on the award-winning short Flying Lessons, Fly Away tells the moving story of a single mother, Jeanne, grappling with the challenge of raising her autistic teenage daughter, Mandy. As Mandy becomes more and more unmanageable, so too does Jeanneʼs life. Over the period of two weeks, Jeanne is confronted with the most difficult decision a parent can make: to let go, allowing her child to grow, but also grow apart, or to hold on tight and fall together.
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Not so. The girl who played the autistic daughter (the actress is not autistic) wasn't just a collection of tics and screams: she was a complex person, and we got to see her that way. Really well done!
Janet Grillo's film chronicles an uncomfortable transitional period--when an afflicted girl is no longer a child, yet still maintains a childlike existence. Ashley Rickards plays the burgeoning woman whose frustrations have caused her to increasingly lash out at school and at home. Beth Broderick is a mother whose life is dedicated to her daughter, but who must make some hard choices about the future. When is it time to let go and entrust your child's well-being to others? She has subjugated her own independence and chance at happiness--yet when a new romantic interest as well as a new educational opportunity for Rickards coincide, it just might be time for some serious thought. Broderick wrestles with what would be best for everyone, but there are no easy answers and bright outlooks. Through it all, the film maintains a central realism as opposed to going for overwrought drama--and the choice is quietly effective.
Rickards does well capturing the enthusiasm, confusion, and frustration battling for domain over her body and mind. But, in many ways, the film belongs to Broderick. I remember first seeing Broderick in the mid-eighties (yes, I know that dates me) and liking her--and in the next 25 years, she was oftentimes the brightest spot in some pretty dismal entertainment. Finally, she has a role worthy of her. Exceptionally understated, you can always see the gears moving behind her eyes. It's a compelling, thoughtful, and surprisingly introspective performance that might have veered toward melodrama in other hands. All in all, this is both a sweet and sad movie and certainly not without hope. The film might feel incredibly personal if your family has struggled with autism--but there is also much to recommend it for a general audience. KGHarris, 4/11.
Fly Away is Heartbreaking, if Hallmark-y
Fly Away is a gripping, life-enhancing low-budget little film about the physically and emotionally punishing struggles of a single mother raising an autistic child. The actors are so exemplary that it is difficult to imagine this is not a documentary. They might not be household names, but they will be. Jeanne (played by the excellent Beth Broderick) has sacrificed almost every aspect of her own life, devoting herself to her handicapped daughter, Mandy (the remarkable Ashley Rickards, from the TV show One Tree Hill), who is now 16 and scarcely able to brush her own teeth. Constantly suspended from her school for special needs because she's a danger to herself and the other children, she is also big enough to become a threat to her mother, sometimes shutting down completely but more often flying into howling rages that leave Jeanne covered with bruises. Trying to be a caring parent and still eke out a living working at home on a laptop, which Mandy attacks like a used toy, Jeanne is sometimes relieved of her duties by her ex-husband, Pete, who can't deal with parenting a disabled child at all, and whose visits always end in disaster. Jeanne has had so little time for herself that she hasn't felt the touch of a human hand in years. Along comes Tom (Greg Germann), a new neighbor with a rescue dog who develops a fondness for Jeanne and a special relationship with Mandy, too. Tom is too good to be true, but his attempts to bring love to Jeanne's lonely life are met with a rejection that drives him away. Well-meaning teachers and friends recommend Mandy be institutionalized, but Jeanne adamantly resists any decision that could separate her from the child she loves. The sword has a double edge.
Making an auspicious feature-film debut, triple-threat producer-writer-director Janet Grillo manages the difficult job of taking a wrenching social issue from the pages of real life and turning it into a genuinely likable, often humorous and completely absorbing movie. Still, you get the fits, the screams in the middle of the night, the staccato giggles eating tutti-fruiti cereal (the only food Mandy will touch), the endless battle to balance schooling needs with the medical requirements to keep Mandy alive on a fixed income. With all good intentions, the depression is inevitable. This is no fault of the actors. As the saintly mother, Ms. Broderick is natural as breathing. Mr. Germann is winningly affable, charming and welcome as the kind and generous outsider who offers compassion without condescension. And Ms. Rickards, as the dominating, domineering child, gives a three-dimensional performance that must be experienced to be believed. The way all of these sensitive characters bond is touching and very well written, and the acting is first-rate; Fly Away is a glowing tribute to human survival. Unfortunately, I fear it might be too heartbreaking to generate much interest from a general audience seeking entertainment.
Eventually, life forces Jeanne to confront the problem of how to make the right choices for Mandy's future-to put her away and save both their lives, or hold on and go down the drain together. Sometimes the truest, most affirmative love one person can offer another is letting go. As admirable as it all is, Fly Away still seems like a Movie of the Week, or one of those "worthy" specials on Hallmark Hall of Fame, which has dealt with the same issue before. Still, this is a movie worth seeing, if for no other reason than the dramatic intensity Ms. Rickards brings to her character. In a class by herself, she deserves, at the very least, an Oscar nomination. Not since Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker has any actor portrayed a handicapped child (especially one with autism) with the same depth of passion and realism. Her emotional range seems to know no limits. She's more heartbreaking than the movie itself, and that is very high praise indeed.
Huffington Post Review: An Absorbing Film About Autism
TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2011 AT 08:44PM
College English Instructor in Northern California
Fly Away: An Absorbing Film About Autism
Posted: 04/12/11 06:18 PM ET
Many people may want to shy away from seeing this film, but that is exactly why they should see it. What the world needs now, besides love sweet love, is empathy. Too many of us are so caught up in our own needs and desires that we sometimes cannot even see anyone else, let alone sympathize; and that is just one facet of life that is explored with great diligence in Fly Away, an independent narrative feature from writer, producer, and director Janet Grillo.
The best thing a serious, no-nonsense movie can do is give us a glimpse into the world of someone whose experiences are so far away from our own that they are difficult for us to even imagine. Fly Away is an intimate story about a divorced mother with a 16-year-old autistic daughter, and although it is set in a quiet suburban neighborhood, it has -- in its own way -- as many twists and turns as a good thriller. If I may borrow the words of one of its characters, Fly Away "really knows how to throw a punch."
What is remarkable about this movie is its pacing. It has a rhythm to it, like a symphony. It's at times loud, soft, beguiling, and boisterous. Its many melodic lines intertwine in almost perfect harmony. I say "almost" because, otherwise, the film might have approached being maudlin, and it is anything but that. It is hard, tough, and as we follow Jeanne, the mother played by Beth Broderick, through her suffocating environment, we are able to balance our lives against hers because she is so much like most of us. She is more like a real person than a fictional character, and therefore a rarity in movies nowadays.
Jeanne is multidimensional in a very real, down to earth sense: the many facets of her life converge upon her from all quarters. Besides being the mother of a severely autistic child, a full-time responsibility in itself, she is also trying to run a consulting business of sorts with a less-than-fully-sympathetic partner; she is in a perpetual struggle with the principal of her daughter's "special" school; and she must constantly battle with her ex-husband, who cannot handle being with their daughter and so is reluctant to help, even when Jeanne needs him most.
Broderick plays Jeanne with a lost look on her face. She is overwhelmed by her circumstances, but is determined to persevere. One day, when her ex does take Mandy for an afternoon, he advises her to use her free time to get her hair done, as if she doesn't have anything better to do. She goes back into her house, looks appraisingly in the mirror, sees that she is still an attractive woman, but then realizes, sadly, that it doesn't really matter anymore. It is a sublime 30 seconds of acting, the kind of moment sometimes overlooked in films, but striking if noticed.
In stark counterpoint to Jeanne is Mandy, the autistic daughter who is not like most of us. Mandy is played by Ashley Rickards, a young lady who should win an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She is that convincing. Her performance is both frightening and wonderful. Director Grillo lets us take small steps into Mandy's world by juxtaposing scenes of bright color with scenes of dreary darkness. We see Mandy on a sunny morning, drawing with brilliantly colored crayons at the kitchen table, and then we see her in the middle of the night in her darkened bedroom screaming about what a bad person she is. Mandy's life seems to be one of extremes. Her shining exuberance is often a heartbeat away from dark violence. Broderick and Rickards hit all the notes perfectly. Their duet is really something to see.
To complicate the lives of Jeanne and Mandy even more, a new neighbor enters the scene, a man around Jeanne's age who seems almost too good to be true. This intriguing yet suspiciously jolly white knight is played to perfection by Greg Germann, who brings just the right amount of ambiguity to the role (something that Germann is always particularly good at, by the way). We struggle along with Jeanne to try to figure him out while stepping very carefully. At one point Jeanne asks him why he doesn't try to date a woman who is not in her particular situation, and as he stands nonplussed, we -- right in step with her -- wonder what his answer can possibly be.
After many changes in key, when the symphony that is this film comes to a close, we see that Jeanne may be about to face her biggest challenge yet. An ending can be seen as a new beginning, and this film leaves me hoping for a sequel.
Fly Away opens in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, on Friday, April 15. And it will be available on VOD, DVD, and Digital on Tuesday, April 26.