Judge Russell Engebretson has concluded that autism is no joking matter.
Today, it is estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes, and pediatric AIDS combined.
Fly Away is an out-of-the-ordinary film in that it depicts Autism Spectrum Disorder from the day-to-day perspective of the caregiver, in this case a single mother who cares for her severely disabled sixteen-year-old daughter.
Jeanne (Beth Broderick, Lost) has always cared for her autistic daughter Mandy (Ashley Rickards, One Tree Hill), but is finding it considerably more difficult to care for her as a teenager. Her home business as a management consultant—her sole source of income—is barely limping along. Her personal life, apart from ministering to Mandy, is nearly nonexistent, consisting mainly of daily walks with the dog to a local dog park. At school, Mandy throws increasingly violent fits that culminates in a desk-throwing incident that slightly injures a fellow student. Mandy is put on probation for a week while paperwork is filed with the district to determine if she is fit to finish her semester at the school or needs to be placed in a full-care facility. Jeanne has to beg her ex-husband to take care of Mandy at least for the weekend while she tries to finish a job for an irate customer. Jeanne's life is crumbling around her, and Prince Charming is nowhere in sight.
Actually, Jeanne does meet an interested single guy, but the movie does not opt for the clichéd story convention in which a male enters the picture and sets all things aright. Director Janet Grillo, also the scriptwriter and producer, has created a film that is shot squarely from a female perspective. Jeanne's ex-husband, for instance, is not a villain, but he does not have the emotional wherewithal to handle his daughter; Jeanne is in her late forties, yet her pushy online customer refers to her as a "girl."
Neither is the film about female bonding (except between mother and daughter). Jeanne's female business partner, who spends enough time around Jeanne and Mandy to empathize with her difficult situation, bales out of the partnership when the going gets rough. At the end of the day, Jeanne is on her own and she will have to live with whatever decision she comes to concerning her daughter.
The video is more than adequate for an independent film. Colors are bright and solid, close-ups exceptionally well detailed, and distant shots fine for standard definition. The 5.1 Dolby adds little more than ambiance to the sound stage, but speech is clear. The volume levels are well-balanced between the dialogue and the score by Luke Rothschild & String Theory. The extras include a short ad for the Autism Speaks organization and a nearly 30-minute extra that includes interviews with the director, cast, and cinematographer. It was interesting to learn that the director's own house was used for the set. Several months prior to shooting, scenes were blocked, and light levels (morning, afternoon, and night) were determined for all the rooms. There are also a number of candid comments from the director and actors. It's a short but informative featurette.
Despite its serious subject, the film is not a grim viewing experience, nor a weepy melodrama. It's about a mother's struggle to take care of her autistic child, and finally help usher her into the world as a young adult. Fly Away is elegant in its simplicity, unsentimental, and finely acted. Taking care of a child with this kind of disability is depicted realistically, and all the people in the story, Jeanne included, have both their good sides and their flaws. At less than 80 minutes, the movie does not overstay its welcome. It says what it has to say and exits gracefully. The DVD is certainly worth a rental.
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