It’s not easy to be a teen actor. I mean, eventually, you grow up! Some are able to continue acting as adults, and others struggle. Then there are some who just decide that acting isn’t for them. Such was the case with a young actress named Lucy Deakins. I remember that she played the love interest of one of John Candy’s teenage sons in The Great Outdoors. However, after just a few films she stepped away from acting. I understand that she is now quite successful as a lawyer right here in the Denver area. One of her most substantial roles, before she turned to other pursuits, was in 1986’s The Boy who could Fly; a film I had never taken the time to watch until recently.
Deakins plays a girl named Milly who has just moved into a new house with her mother (Bonnie Bedelia) and kid brother Louis. The family is dealing with the challenge of having recently lost their father. As the family adjusts to their new surroundings, they find there are unusual goings-on at the house next door. A teenage boy named Eric (Jay Underwood) lives there with his alcoholic uncle (Fred Gwynne). Eric is autistic and has not spoken since his parents passed away when he was very young. He now spends much time sitting outside of his second-story window, arms raised as if he is flying.
Milly finds herself quite intrigued by the boy next door and ends up helping Eric at school a lot at the request of a kindly teacher (Colleen Dewhurst). Soon, Milly finds herself being somewhat infatuated with Eric…but there’s more. She also starts to believe that he actually does possess the ability to fly. This is fueled by strange moments including him showing up in her room one afternoon, and seconds later being back on his second-story window sill next door. As authorities start to close in on institutionalizing Eric, it’s up to Milly to protect him and perhaps prove to the world that he really can take to the skies.
I think I may have avoided this film for all this time as it always seemed to feel a bit like an After School Special. It does to a degree. It takes place in a very sweet and sugary world where all the teachers are angelic, and you can spot an alcoholic neighbor by their stubble and ripped ballcap. There’s a bit more to The Boy who could Fly, though. It’s a layered film that offers something very different than what the average teen film was presenting in the mid 80’s.
The fact that Eric is autistic is an important element of the story, and is probably one of the main things that gives the film that After School Special feel. Ultimately, though, I think the film’s central theme has to do with how we deal with grief. Many of the film’s central characters are dealing with the loss of a loved one, and they each do so in a variety of ways. For Eric it’s seeing himself as soaring above the clouds. For Milly, it’s wanting to believe that he can, and be with him. She looks at him much the way Lois Lane looks at Superman during “Can You Read My Mind” sequence of the 1978 film. There’s a dream sequence moment that is very reminiscent of that iconic scene, and which is almost as lovely. I was most intrigued, though, by Fred Savage’s character, Louis. He deals with the loss of his father through an obsession with military toys. He goes so far as to bury his G.I. Joe action figures in a makeshift cemetery. This theme of dealing with loss is much weightier than what was typical for most 80’s teen fare.
Of course, dealing with such heavy issues only works with a capable cast, and that’s more than a challenge when many of your actors are so young. This cast handles the material perfectly, first and foremost the young Miss Deakins. The weight of the film is truly on her shoulders. If we can’t see the situation through her eyes, this fantastical film falls apart. Lucky Deakins is pretty much in every scene of this film. The movie is all hers and she puts in what may be one of the best teen performances of 80’s cinema. I’m sure Miss Deakins ended up a fantastic lawyer, but I do wish we’d gotten a few more films to highlight her undeniable talent. Alongside her, Jay Underwood is given the challenge of an almost entirely silent performance. He hits the right tone for this challenging character. Balancing things out, Fred Savage (pre-Princess Bride) and The Facts of Life’s Mindy Cohn, as a nosy neighbor, bring in just enough comedy to not make the film feel too heavy. That being said, though, Savage has one of the film’s most emotional moments as he exhumes the bodies of his toys who have been lost in battle during a downpour.
The teen movies of the 80’s are one of the things that made growing up a movie fan in that decade so great. The Boy who could Fly is a far cry from Anthony Michael Hall asking Molly Ringwald if he can borrow her panties for a bit. It’s something entirely different, but it deserves a place among the iconic teen films of the era.