Nobility counts for so much in people and so little in movies. Director Janet Grillo’s “Fly Away” is an exceedingly noble film. I admire its commitment to autism education even while I admit I did not like it very much. Its heart is in the right place, and I’m sure it was a labor of love for Grillo and for many in her cast and crew.
It is the story of mother’s struggle to care and provide for her autistic daughter, Mandy. She’s 16 and despite medication and her mother’s constant attention and hard-work, her behavior isn’t improving. Mandy’s too much of a handful for her public school teachers, who continually press mom Jeanne to get Mandy into a full time care and education facility while Jeanne fights like the Dickens to keep her family together.
That, along with a warm and optimistic love story between Jeanne and a man she meets at the dog park (played nicely by Greg Germann) represents the totality of “Fly Away”‘s plot. Mostly the film is just a portrait of the life of a single mother of an austistic daughter. I have no doubt this portrait is accurate. Grillo is the mother of an autistic child and an executive producer of the Emmy-winning documentary “Autism: The Musical,” and the scenes between Jeanne and Mandy thrum with authenticity. On a purely technical level, Ashley Rickards performance as Mandy is remarkable — it’s shocking to compare the glamorous actress of Rickards’ IMDb page with the girl she plays with absolute commitment in “Fly Away.” And Beth Broderick strikes the proper note between determination and exhaustion as Jeanne.
But I must admit, I didn’t get much more out of “Fly Away” than the lesson that having an autistic child can be difficult but deeply rewarding. I suspect the film will find its most receptive audience amongst people who can relate on a more personal level to the lives of Jeanne and Mandy than I can. Families in similar situations likely won’t care that there isn’t anything particularly cinematic about the film, or that every story beat is predictable from the first scene. They’ll just be pleased to watch Jeanne defiantly tell off uncaring school administrators with lines like “My daughter is not a problem. My daughter is a person!”
I wasn’t personally moved by “Fly Away,” but I imagine an audience like that might. This isn’t a case of some greedy Hollywood types cashing it in with a crass product. Whatever else is lacking in this film, there is passion and plenty of good intentions. But you know what they say about good intentions.