Fly Away: Film Review

Affecting performances and a sure grasp of detail lift this story above run-of-the-mill mother-and-afflicted-child sagas.

Janet Grillo's debut feature convincingly explores the relationship between a mother and her autistic daughter.

Anchored by strong performances and a clear-eyed approach to what might have been a cloying feel-good drama, Fly Away is an affecting portrait of a single mother and her severely autistic daughter. Writer-director Janet Grillo’s debut feature demonstrates a keen understanding of the interdependencies that define that bond, shining its lens on an especially tender and challenging point of awakening for the parent. New Video, which acquired the film at the recent SXSW Film festival, will focus on VOD, digital and DVD distribution after a limited theatrical run, likely to be bolstered by appreciative reviews and word-of-mouth.

From the opening credits sequence, showcasing a child’s ham-fisted drawings, the film makes a sharp segue to her night-splitting screams, succinctly encapsulating her extremes of unpredictable behavior. The child is 16-year-old Mandy (Ashley Rickards), and her mother, Jeanne (Beth Broderick), is practiced at calming her nocturnal torments. But Mandy increasingly is acting out at school, and Jeanne -- who’s fit and attractive but has put her personal needs on hold -- rejects the suggestions of Mandy’s principal (Reno) and father (JR Bourne) that an institution is the appropriate next step.

Despite its too-neat resolution and flat visual style, Fly Away is both tough and subtle in depicting the particular intensity of this mother-child relationship. Rickards (One Tree Hill) brings a convincing physicality to the role of an adolescent toddler, veering between inward focus, outsize exuberance and hair-trigger explosions. In a quiet and lovely performance, Broderick is a revelation, making Jeanne’s need to be needed as deeply felt as her weariness and blurred sense of self.

Never pushing her points, Grillo has a fine grasp of detail: the day-to-day struggle of Jeanne’s search for work (appropriately, it’s the emotionally uninvolving crunching of numbers as a business consultant); the microwaved meals and the autism lingo that is second nature to her. She still has hope that her “on the spectrum” teenager will learn to “self-regulate.”

Reno’s no-nonsense principal and Greg Germann, as a charming neighbor, provide excellent supporting turns, each a foil for Jeanne, whose equilibrium is shifting. If this mother’s difficult situation has become a kind of protective shell for her, it turns out to be not an unyielding suit of armor but a chrysalis.

Opened Friday, April 15 (New Video/Flatiron Film Company)
A Cricket Films and Ministry of Content production
Cast: Beth Broderick, Ashley Rickards, JR Bourne, Greg Germann, Reno.
Screenwriter-director: Janet Grillo
Producers: Janet Grillo, Pavlina Hatoupis
Executive producers: Catherine Hardwicke, Lee Adhemar G. Feldshon, David F. Schwartz
Director of photography: Sandra Valde-Hansen
Production designer: Katie Byron
Music: Luke Rothschild & String Theory
Co-producer: Sandra Valde-Hansen
Costume designer: Trayce Gigi Field
Editor: Danny Daneau
Rated/No MPAA rating, 80 minutes