It was interesting thinking back on what I remembered and appreciated from this movie since seeing it in the theater as a young boy. Turns out the most lasting image in my head is that of a little kid (who I now assume to be a young Fred Savage) jetting around on a plastic tricycle and exacting revenge on the bullies down the street by ambushing them with a water gun filled with his own urine. Whether this happened in The Boy Who Could Fly or actually in some crazy dream of mine is for you to tell me or me to find out at a later viewing, but let's assume say that this does happen in the movie, and that it's reason enough for it to be celebrated.
Written and directed by Nick Castle (whose career peaked with The Last Starfighter in 1984 and essentially ended with Major Payne in 1995), The Boy Who Could Fly tells the story of Eric Gibb, an extremely withdrawn autistic teen who lives with his negligent, alcoholic Uncle Hugo. (Making matters worse, his uncle is played by Fred Gwynne, otherwise known as Herman Munster from "The Addams Family".) Eric's parents died in a plane crash, and he grieves by standing on his roof and stretching out his arms as if about to take flight. When Milly (Lucy Deakins) and her brother Louis (Savage) move in next door, she strikes up a friendship with Eric that not only brings him out of his shell, but also leads to a tender romance. Incidentally, I've just now realized Eric was played by Minneapolis native Jay Underwood, who just three years later would achieve movie immortality as Bug in Uncle Buck.
I know what you're thinking, because it's what anyone would naturally conclude: Milly only becomes interested in Eric when she learns that he can fly. Now what kind of message would that send? Like most teen crushes, her attraction to him is innocent and gradual until it really takes flight when, well, Eric takes flight with her in tow. It's obviously not the most believable of premises, but there's something heartwarming about their friendship that I wish was still present in today's teen romances - on screen and off.
Unfortunately, The Boy Who Could Fly could simply not be produced in the present day because the 80's-ness is completely off the charts. It is truly a movie that could only exist at one moment in time, as evidenced by a trailer that must be considered one of the worst of the entire decade:
Additionally hampered by an atrocious poster (shown above, here's a close-up) and the fact that it probably resembled a classic 80's After School Special to anyone who saw the trailer, it's no wonder The Boy Who Could Fly didn't fare very well at the box office with a total domestic gross of just over $7 million (although it would be far to say that amount would cover the cost of the cheesy special effects). Reviews were mostly positive at the time (Roger Ebert praised it as a "sweet and innocent parable"), but in the years that have passed it's been taken to task for "heavy-handed emotional manipulation and an escapist conclusion" (Time Out New York).
Call it what you want to, but for those of us who grew up in the 80's, The Boy Who Could Fly is the kind of family-friendly romantic dramedy that will always hold a special place in our memories. It didn't rely on potty humor (hmm, nevermind the urine attack) or past-their-prime stars looking for a quick paycheck, and it was bold enough to responsibly and respectfully confront serious issues (autism, alcoholism, death, etc.) without . Of course I say this without having seen the movie in more than two decades, but I really think it positively influenced me a subconscious level, and from what I've heard I'm not the only one.