At the risk of sounding callous, there are few types of film that are more emotionally manipulative than those that involve children. Viewers hate to see a child suffer, they hate to see a parent suffer, yet they pack the theaters like a clown car to see these films. Frequently the films are either painfully maudlin or cloyingly sappy. Film makers prey on the gooey center of viewers (and critics, for that matter) and twist their sympathies in the cheapest of fashions.
Fly Away is not one of those films, nor is Janet Grillo one of those directors. The film has its share of sadness and woe, but it doesn’t resort to weak heartstring tactics to deliver its message. Fly Away centers on Jeanne (Beth Roderick, perhaps best known as Zelda on “Sabrina The Teenage Witch”), the harried divorced mother of Mandy, her 16 year-old daughter who has severe autism. Jeanne has, in many ways, essentially given up most of her life to take care of Mandy, waking in the middle of the night every night to calm her from her night terrors, losing consulting job opportunities because she misses deadlines, and slowly forgetting to take care of herself. Her love for Mandy is clearly immense, but it becomes apparent early on that she straddles a curious line between maternal devotion and pathological obsession. Mandy attends a school or disabled kids, but her sudden and violent outbursts are getting more intense and frequent, thereby endangering her continued placement. The school principal Liz Howell (Reno) is pressing Jeanne to consider placing Mandy in a full-time care facility/school, an idea that Jeanne vociferously and aggressively opposes. The problem is compounded by those same pressures from her ex-husband Pete (JR Bourne), who obviously loves his daughter, but is incapable of handling her complicated idiosyncrasies even in small doses.
The dynamics begin to shift when Jeanne meets Tom (Greg Germann), a sweet-natured new guy in the area who takes a genuine interest in Jeanne, irrespective her problems — problems that she feels are more troublesome than he does. That blurry, complex line that Jeanne straddles between devotion and obsession becomes the crux of the film, affecting her and all of her relationships, and its fascinating to watch it unfold. The film isn’t about a disabled child, or a single mother or any of those simplistic themes. Instead its an intense, arresting look at the honest sacrifices that parents like Jeanne make. There aren’t those moon-eyed moments where her heart swells with love at her special, special child. The love is obvious and assumed, and instead the struggles and sacrifices that result from it are what’s brought to the forefront.
Jeanne can’t see a future beyond getting through the current day, as if that’s all her heart and mind has the time or energy for. She’s giving everything she has to Mandy, and the pain, frustration, fear and anxiousness are all slowly eroding away her sense of self. That’s not a criticism of Jeanne or similarly situated parents, it’s a simple fact that the film exposes. But it’s genius also comes from her slowly learning that she can live a fuller life with Mandy — it’s never going to be perfect and worry-free, but it can be more than it is. Some of that comes from her budding, tentative relationship with Tom, who she tries her best to drive away without even really thinking about it. Some of her slow evolution comes from the compassionate, but stern principal. But eventually, it starts to come from Jeanne herself, and watching that emotional development is, while frequently heartrending and difficult, incredible to watch.
Roderick gives a great performance as Jeanne, capturing the frantic desperation mixed with hard-edged devotion so perfectly. She has moments when you can tell she wants to scream at Mandy until her throat is raw, and that urge as well as the suppression of it plays out tragically and perfectly. Better yet are the quiet moments when she looks at her exhausted, slowly-lining face in the mirror at the end of a day, sighing at her lank hair and tired eyes. Most impressive, however, is Ashley Rickards as Mandy. Rickards, most well known for her role in “One Tree Hill,” is completely transformative in her depiction of Mandy. It’s not a sentimental role, nor is it one of those “special people who we learn important lessons from” roles. It’s instead an honest, painful portrayal of a child whose needs are far more intricate and complicated than the average person could ever hope to grasp, a difficulty that’s so much more affecting when we see how it impacts those around her. The film’s ending is a bit too pat-feeling, and perhaps oversimplifies the solutions, but it’s still moving and endearing.
I hate saying that there’s a “special child” genre, but if there is one, then Fly Away is one of the better entries. With that said, Fly Away is simply one of the better films I saw at SXSW, full stop. It’s emotionally affecting but not manipulative, eye-opening and demonstrative without being exploitative, funny at times without relying on quirk, sweet but not cloying. Roderick and Rickards, two unlikely indie drama stars, carry the film evenly and honestly, and Grillo’s relaxed, unpretentious direction anchors it and makes it feel real. It’s a wonderful, occasionally devastating film that reveals some of the harsh, yet strangely lovely truths about parents and children.