The Boy Who Could Fly

December 8, 2011

Who is going to pay five bucks for a film with the title The Boy Who Could Fly? The family crowd, perhaps? Surely a title so hopelessly up-hip will turn off the other crucial demographic groups.

Well, if they let the title stop them from seeing the film, they deserve to miss it. The Boy Who Could Fly is the unexpected sleeper of the summer, a lovely fable about a realistically rendered average family whose lives are touched by magic.

It’s the second film from writer-director Nick Castle, whose first film, The Last Starfighter, was also marked by decency and simplicity. (Castle is an old film-school friend of John Carpenter, and played, of all things, the killer in Carpenter’s Halloween.)

A family moves into a white picket-fence neighborhood in an anonymous American city (actually filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia). The father has recently died; the widow (Bonnie Bedelia) and two children are still grieving. Aside from that cloud, all is quite normal—except the moony adolescent boy who lives next door.

This kid Eric (Jay Underwood), an orphan presumed autistic by the authorities, lives in the house of his uncle (played by Fred Gwynne). Most of the time, he perches outside on his window sill, moving his arms up and down and lofting paper airplanes into the sky.

His new neighbor Milly (Lucy Deakins, a luminous newcomer), 14 years old, takes a shine to the silent boy. She helps him at school, encourages him to speak, and includes him in her family activities. He’s clearly intelligent, but he still won’t talk.

Despite the tip-off title, the suggestion that Eric can fly—or thinks he can fly—emerges slowly during the film. Then during a school outing, Milly takes a fall from a high bridge and blacks out, but wakes up unhurt. There’s only one way she could have avoided getting killed: if someone caught her on the way down….

Castle, who visited Seattle with Underwood recently, says that the uncertainty of Eric’s flying powers was a deliberate move. He compared it to Miracle on 34th Street, where the audience is teased along about whether the main character really is Santa Claus. Castle wanted to build an utterly realistic world first, then add the layer of fantasy.

At least part of the script is a response to the early death of Castle’s own father, a Hollywood choreographer. “I have very deep scars from my father’s death,” Castle says, “and he died right in front of me. It’s something I kind of fused into this family.”

But the moment of inspiration came while he was reading Dumbo—a tale of a pachyderm misfit who flies—to his young son. “I saw that it wasn’t just a happy story about an elephant who could fly. It had a lot of things to teach kids.”

As for that title, Castle says, “I always thought the title sounded like a classic fairy tale.” 20th Century Fox wasn’t so sure—they test-marketed the film under various monikers—but eventually stuck with The Boy Who Could Fly.

The ad campaign has been carefully designed, because the film and its title are something of a hard sell. If word-of-mouth counts for anything, the movie should appeal to the entire demographic spectrum.

Even so, I have a few reservations. The dialogue is occasionally overwritten, telling us things we’ve already seen; Colleen Dewhurst’s performance as a teacher is overly warm and fuzzy; Bruce Broughton’s music is inexcusably reminiscent of E.T., which this film resembles enough as it is. But the many simple, beautiful moments in the film outweigh the reservations.

Underwood, who is excellent in the non-speaking role, described his delight upon first meeting Castle: “Here’s this guy with black curly hair, T-shirt, and Ray-Bans. He was just one of the gang. It’s impossible not to like Nick.” It looks as though it’s going to be hard not to like Castle’s movies, either.

First published in the Herald, August 15, 1986

I guess the suits were right: the title didn’t catch on, and the movie didn’t do strong business. Castle was a nice guy, and part of a Hollywood dynasty, and still working. Lucy Deakins hasn’t made many movies, but according to her IMDb bio, has lived an interesting life: Harvard degree, boatbuilder in Port Townsend, WA; firefighter, lawyer.