Studio: FlatIron Film / Autism Speaks
Length: 80 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 / Secondary Track Dolby Digital 2.0
Film Release Date: April 20, 2011
Disc Release Date: April 26, 2011
Disc Review Date: April 23, 2011
A tough take on a difficult topic
Film: 4.5 / 5
When I first sat down to view Fly Away, I was prepared for a movie that took a melodramatic take on the life of a family with an autistic child. I could almost see the script before the film started: a saintly mother in a difficult situation takes care of a difficult child and finds reward in her sacrifice. Whether it's autism or the cause of the week, the boilerplate script almost writes itself. Hit target A, people cry in act 2, huge breakdown and then an outsider comes and pats you on your back and you realize the joy of your journey and in Act 3, all of your hard work is rewarded and there is some sort of breakthrough or success that you've worked the whole film to earn.
If that's the film you think you're going to see with "Fly Away", you are in for a rude awakening. Fly Away takes a look at autism that obviously comes from an insider who has been there, done that. Ashley Rickards delivers a stunning performance as Mandy, a low-functioning autistic girl at age 16. Mandy lives at home with Jeane, portrayed by Beth Broderick (probably best known as an aunt on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch) and attends a public school oriented toward children with special needs.
Mandy, however, has hit an age where her social interactions are not getting better instead, she is regressing. Jeane looks at Mandy as her little girl and best friend, and while she recognizes the problem, she steadfastly rejects looking into long term care options for Mandy.
What really helps this film is that the smaller roles are so effective because they are more then cardboard characters to bounce lines off of.
At first, Mandy's anger happens in quick flashes that the school tries to address through an action plan. The principal, effectively played by Reno, delivers a real dose of reality to Jeane
Actress Reno turns in a surprisingly effective performance as the principal of Mandy's school. After a violent outburst in her classroom, Reno pulls Jeane aside and talks to her about Mandy's future. A lesser film could have turned Reno's principal into a hard-hearted SOB who just wanted to run the school without her daughter. But Reno's character comes across with real warmth and concern for the future of Mandy. In their first meeting, she points out to Jeane that her school really isn't equipped to handle Mandy's growing rage. When Jeane revolts and says she'll work harder for Mandy to help her fit in, the principal's fitting response is: we want the future to work out for Mandy - and this may not be what is best for her.
It's a surprisingly warm and fitting portrayal of a concerned principal who is trying to provide outside perspective to a mother who doesn't want to hear it. It may be Jeane's love of her daughter that blinds her to the direction her daughter's life is heading, but the principal doesn't wish ill on Mandy - she just wants Jeane to see the situation differently.
Her early warning, however, is brought to life when in a rage at her teacher, Mandy throws a desk at another student. Jeane is then asked to consider again the real future of Mandy. Mandy is 16. She will be beyond the school system in less then 2 years. Without a long term plan, the principal tells Jeane, the only assurance you have is that you will likely pass away before she does - and since she won't accept care from others right now, how will she go on without you?
The story focuses in on the routine and realities of handling a low-functioning autistic child, and how Jeane's life otherwise becomes an afterthought. When approached by Greg Gerrman (Fisch from "Ally McBeal") as a potential love interest, Jeane runs him off, afraid that her potential interest in him will do too much damage to the routine she has with Mandy. Job pressures force her to chose between calm for her child or the consulting job she has with a partner. When she chooses her daughter, income slows up and she bears that consequence.
The film could have taken these efforts and turned them into a herculean effort to be praised in defense of her daughter. But instead, it takes a much more difficult approach as she re-assesses toward the end and realizes that for all her efforts, at some point, she will be gone and her daughter will have no one.
If you have friends or family who have a low functioning autistic child, this is a film worth seeing to get across what daily life can be.
Picture Quality 4/5
Presented in Anamorphic Widscreen on DVD, the video has a crisp, clean look to it. (Reportedly) filmed in digital, this should not be a surprise. The direction in some of the dialog sequences is lacking as the camera too quickly moves back and forth between characters; but the picture itself looks about as good as you can be reasonably expected for an independent production. Presented on a dual layer DVD with very few extras, the DVD is able to keep standard bitrate high (~7Mb) throughout the presentation and the presentation is effective.
Sound Quality 4/5
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film is dialog heavy; there are no big sound effects and you aren't watching this film expecting a chase sequence. However, quiet moments make very effective use of dialog and the ambient effects while minor do broaden the stage in several scenes providing life to the film.
Extras & Special Features: 5 / 5 OR 2/5.. depending on your perspective....
The disc itself provides two extras: a short video, highlighting the daily life of autistic children to song, and a short documentary based on the process of making the film. The extras are short. There are no deleted scenes, extra content, there are no previews or other material. So what makes the extras a 5/5... or a 2/5? With a normal title you would view this as about a 2/5, minimal extras with low production values. What turns it into a 5/5? Well, that depends on your perspective. Proceeds of the film are being donated to "Autism Speaks" a non-for-profit charity oriented around informing people about autism as well as providing research money to discover root causes of autism and potential cures. Depending on your perspective, that donation can turn this title into a MUST HAVE, or, if that donation isn't meaningful to you, the title's extras are scant.
Before I close this review, I have to comment on the controversy that will no doubt follow this title. The film takes a hard and direct look at mid to low functioning autistic children. Because autism is a diagnosis with a large number of children ranging from low functioning to high functioning, the film is bound to generate quite a few heated strongly negative reviews in short order. Those who oppose Autism Speaks will point out that the film plays on most of the Autism Speaks talking points: a divorced single mother; a violent aggressive child; a mother who has dark suicidal thoughts; the lack of a sex life for an autistic parent; institutional care. Many of those who view Autism Speaks skeptically are going to immediately view this as an assault on the majority of autistic children who are not low functioning.
There has been a long held dispute within the autistic community that portrayals such as "Fly Away" work to cement an image of Autistic children as mentally retarded and unable to deal with the real world. To those who believe that is the goal of Autism Speaks, this film will be used as a point of evidence to say: "SEE! We told you!" To those individuals, this film will be seen as an attempt to further stigmatize autistic persons by making them seem as less then a person and more of a problem that can only be handled through residential care.
Because of how broad the diagnosis is, there are hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with autism who can live, function and perform in a daily life and you would probably never know it. These high level autistic children and adults deal with a very real neural disorder, but they are not "autistic" they are a person with autism. Even those with the most severe forms of autism are also people first, people who suffer a neural disorder called autism.
But while there are hundreds of thousands diagnosed with autism who can live, work and deal head on with the community, there are also a fair number of persons with autism like Mandy - and those who range from High Level Function to Low Level Function, with as many differences as there are people.
Because of that, it is difficult to make a film that will be universally accepted by the community of people with autism and the families of those with autism. For some, the portrayal will seem accurate and very real. For others it will show an image of autism that they can't relate to because their family member/sibling/self does not suffer in quite this way.
These large differences in the real world lives of those with autism means that whatever Autism Speaks does will be criticized in one form or another. Autism Speaks will be seen by part of the community as villifying the neural disorder with this film. By another, they will be seen as finally putting a real face on their daily life.
The fact is, both sides are right. But the differences that exist don't negate that situations such as Mandy are real. And while Autism Speaks often latches onto the most downbeat of situations to highlight the cause, this is a standard approach to raise money for a charity. It is much harder to influence people that there are real and severe consequences to the disorder. It's pretty hard to raise money with the "well, the majority are just fine..."
The DVD for Fly Away goes on Sale April 26. Across the country this week, several local groups are providing public viewing of Fly Away in locations that are raising money for Autism Speaks. Autism support groups in many areas were also provided advance copies and I expect several of these will also have copies available to purchase prior to Autism Awareness Walks and other charity functions.
The film is well presented and surprisingly well acted. For an obviously low budget production, this had a real risk to come off as a low-end TV movie of the week. But it's straightforward commitment to the material helps sell the story. Ashley Rickards turns in a stunning, gutsy performance that is so real my wife was stunned at the end to learn she was NOT autistic. Rickard's performance is STUNNING. It is one of the most fearless, transforming roles I have EVER seen an actress perform.
If you've seen Ashely Rickards in One Tree Hill, this acting turn is the kind of thing that makes you wonder: WHERE did this girl come from? Her small gestures, nuanced eye movements, and her attention to the small details about her character in this film are a real work of craft. It would have been easy for this character to be so wildly, laughably over the top that it would be a joke. Ashley's fierce portrayal of Mandy is the center that holds this film together. When my wife turned to me and said: "Wait, she's not autistic?" I thought to myself: wow. It's not easy to make it so that people who have an autistic child can look at a portrayal and not roll our eyes. I'd keep a strong eye on Rickard's future based on this performance. There are a lot of young actresses who would have passed on a role like this one but kudos to her for taking it and pulling everything out of it she could.
My Final Judgement: Put this on your buy list
(Reviewers note: Screen Captures are taken with TMT5; they are not representative of picture quality of this film, as they have been scaled and reduced for use within this review to highlight characters and scenes)