Recently, I came across two movies I watched a long time ago with my cousin in my Netflix recommendations. One of those movies was The Boy Who Could Fly, which I decided to make a priority when I realized—from reading the Netflix blurb—that it was about a boy with autism. I hadn’t remembered that.
In retrospect, that’s understandable. Though the character in question, Eric, is non-verbal and socially aloof, there are no other autistic traits that make him stand out as on the spectrum. Perhaps that is a failing of the writer or the actor, but the diagnosis of autism is also questioned in the movie itself, so it might have been intentional.
This movie is a surprisingly complicated drama with a popcorn-flick feel. The story starts with the relocation of a mother and her two children after the death of the father. The family is struggling and the boy next door proves to be a heart-warming distraction for the girl, Milly. While the mother struggles with re-entering the workforce and the brother struggles with a neighborhood bully, the girl befriends this boy whose odd behavior sets him apart from his peers. This is encouraged once it becomes apparent that the boy is willing to connect with her in a way he’s never connected with anyone before. Of course, the boy has problems of his own, including the looming possibility of forced institutionalization and the semi-neglect of his drunken uncle, who is his legal guardian due to the tragic deaths of both the boy’s parents.
There are things I really liked, like how the teachers made an effort to include Eric, even though it required effort. I like how they show a balance between the forces that respect Eric and those that do not. But there was also little resistance to the ablism that persisted throughout the movie, and that I didn’t like so much.
One scene I really like is when Milly, by chance, discovers that connecting with Eric has a lot to do with following his lead, much the same way he connected with her by following her lead. I don’t know whether this was realized by the movie makers, but it was clear from the story—at least to me, but of course I’ve done that myself with my own children. This is spoiled, however, when Milly tries to make Eric perform like a trick pony. When he fails to perform, she tells him “Don’t do this to me, Eric,” as if his unwillingness to perform is an intentional effort to humiliate her. She never seems to realize that she is doing anything wrong to him.
So, it’s iffy. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. It has potential that could have been better realized, but it’s also a movie from 1986. If that seems like an excuse, so be it.
Still, I’m trying hard not to be disappointed. Is there no place in society for a boy who can re-ignite our ability to dream? Find out for yourself. Me, I think there’s room for a sequel.