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Why ‘The Boy Who Could Fly’ Got a Raw Deal in the ’80s

It's flawed, no doubt, but the child-like wonder and pain deserve our attention

Nick Castle’s “The Boy Who Could Fly” is one of those 1980s fantasies that’s well remembered by those who grew up in the VHS era or caught the film through repeat cable airings.

While not a success in theaters, it has a sense of wonder and is downright stunning at times, though it suffers from an identity crisis. Castle’s 1986 fantasy wants to be a Steven Spielberg film so badly, but it’s best when it’s just being itself.

The Boy Who Could Fly (1986) Official Trailer - Lucy Deakins, Jay Underwood Drama Movie HD

A recently widowed mother (Bonnie Bedelia), Milly, her kind-hearted daughter (Lucy Deakins) and Louis, her wild, G.I. Joe-obsessed son (Fred Savage) move into a new home to restart their lives. They learn that Eric, the boy next door (Jay Underwood), is scarred from the grief of losing his parents and copes by sitting on his windowsill and pretending to fly.

Milly accepts the request of a sympathetic doctor (Colleen Dewhurst) to tutor and watch over Eric in high school. Over time, she becomes infatuated with him and begins to suspect that he really can fly.

RELATED: Why ‘Flight of the Navigator’ Speaks to Our Inner Child

Deakins is dazzling, conveying an ahead-of-her-years awareness in a natural, alarmingly strong performance. Underwood has a somewhat impossible role, as the defining traits and “rules” of Eric are always changing. He’s initially referred to as “sort of autistic,” and later in the form of an unkind word that no longer has merit today.

At times, Underwood cuts Eric off from us by not making eye contact, at others he’s warm and offers subtle clues as to his thought process. Underwood is very good at this, though the screenplay should have been clearer as to what was actually going on with him.

I suppose the quasi-fairy tale feel of the whole thing makes his “handicap” a moot point, as the film suggests he’s more misunderstood, lonely and mourning his parents than anything else (he’s more Peter Pan than Raymond Babbitt).

Savage, just a few years away from getting the lead of “The Wonder Years,” one of the best TV shows of its decade, gives a mannered performance that is exactly right. Little Louis is obsessed with military fatigues, strategies and G.I. Joe action figures, but he hides how, like his mother and sister, he’s still mourning the loss of his dad.

Savage’s big dramatic scene with Deakins begins as a funny confrontation, until it becomes heartbreaking.

Lucy Deakins "The Boy Who Could Fly" 1986 - Bobbie Wygant Archive

Mindy Kohn of “The Facts of Life” has her sole film role as Deakins’ best friend and gives a sitcom-ready performance. Far better, though also a tad hammy, is Fred Gwynne as Eric’s alcoholic and unreliable uncle.

One quality I love about the film, which won’t sound like I’m being complimentary? It’s a sad movie. There are scenes here that are startling and even heartbreaking. I wish Castle were less afraid of these moments, as comic interludes step on their toes in ways that hurt the emotional honesty on display.

Once we get to the elaborate dream sequence, with its Richard Edlund visual effects, there is some lovely imagery (the fireworks-enhanced, “To Catch a Thief”-inspired kiss is gorgeous).

Even better?

A dream that swiftly turns into a nightmare. It’s one of the few times where a drastic tonal change works extremely well.

Castle peppers this with a few in-jokes: Louis is visibly playing “The Last Starfighter” video game at home (Castle’s directorial debut was “The Last Starfighter”), and director John Carpenter, Castle and others are visible in the tacky “Back of the Bus” music video that plays on Milly’s TV.

There is a tonal clash that appears part of its inner design: when the focus is on Mom, “The Boy Who Could Fly” is grounded in reality and fairly tough. Milly’s perspective is, likewise, mature and hardened, though touches of whimsy frequently enter her story.

Then there’s Louis, whose dialog and overall trajectory suggest a children’s film.

The ending goes full-“E.T.” on us, with a chase through suburbia and a last-minute miracle. The combination proves both cutesy and implausible.

Louis’ recurring plotline, portraying his struggle to ride around the block in his Big Wheeler, is far stronger and more involving than the actual climax.

It’s worth noting that, after the film’s big showdown, where we witness the miracle of flight in broad daylight (!), the film still allows Savage and his Big Wheeler to have the last scene. It’s undoubtedly the right choice.

The sweetness of Deakins and Underwood’s final moment is easily overshadowed by the juvenile, hilarious struggle of Savage’s character.

“The Boy Who Could Fly” drew little attention as a summer of ’86 attraction; I blame the poster and trailer campaign. The duo tried to be teasing and mysterious but were, instead, vague and distancing. It found an audience on home video but never captured a second wave of cult devotion, like “The Monster Squad” (1987) or “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” (1984).

If there’s a true comparison to Castle’s film, it’s the unflattering similarity it bears to “Radio Flyer” (1992), which struggled far more with its fantasy and harsh realities fatally clashing. A touch that I once liked but can’t stand now – Bruce Broughton’s trying-too-hard-to-be-John-Williams score, which slams us with twinkly notes and overly symphonic swoons when something quieter would have worked much better.

However, having an audio cue of windchimes to signal Eric’s presence is lovely.

This is a film I loved and replayed often in my youth. Looking at it now, I clearly see that Castle was trying too hard to capture the lightening in the bottle that was “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” At least this is much better than some of the other “E.T.” wannabees from the same year, like “Critters” and “Short Circuit.”

Despite the strangeness of it (a few scenes even hint at this becoming a horror film) and that troublesome shifting of tonal gears, the performances are exceptional, and a handful of scenes are quite powerful. Milly finding her mother alone one night, staring at her late husband’s photo, is beautifully written and performed. So is the scene where the family unexpectedly finds a home movie playing and can’t stop watching it.

Also, the scene where Louis desperately attempts to save his action figures before they drown in the mud and a wrenching bit where Milly confides in a psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher, playing the oddly named “Doctor Grenada”) how her father really died are crushing, moving moments.

Despite the dialog assuring us that love makes us fly and the tender Stephen Bishop synth ballad over the end credits, “The Boy Who Could Fly” genuinely soars when its feet are planted firmly on the ground.

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