February 28, 2009

Underrated MOTM: The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)

I'm going out on quite a limb for February's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM). Of all the movies I've featured so far, this is far and away the one that I haven't seen in the longest time: more than 20 years. But there are no rules to this feature (the word "underrated" shouldn't be taken too literally; many of them have at least a 50% RT rating), and since a friend of mine and I spontaneously and independently thought of this movie the other day, here it is: The Boy Who Could Fly.

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1984 and essentially ended with Major Payne in 1995), The Boy Who Could Fly tells the story of Eric Gibb, an extremely withdrawn autistic teen who lives with his negligent, alcoholic Uncle Hugo.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.


  1. Crazy that you put this one up. I definitely remember it (and own it) - my sister and I went through a phase where we watched it over and over. My memory is that Savage was on a big wheel, decked out in army gear, trying desperately to make it all the way around the block. He eventually hashes out a battle plan that vanquishes the bullies and he triumphs.

  2. Yes! (pumps fist)

    I should have grabbed it from you before you bounced out of here, but something tells me this movie actually lives much better in all of our memories than it does in real life, so it's probably for the best.

    Haha, totally remember the Army gear now that you mention it. But I'm still dying to know if the urine attack happened as I described.

    I really hope so, because if not then it means I either experienced that when I was little or I considered doing it, both of which would be horrible truths.

  3. I wore out my VHS(!) copy of this movie. I think I was too young (5) to see it in the theater, but once we rented it, we had to own it. It's probably been about 18 years or so since I watched it, but I actually remember some things quite vividly. Great pick for the Underrated MOTM!

  4. Awesome, Rachel. So both of you had it on VHS and I only saw it in the theater (and I was only 5 or 6 at the time). And yet we all remember it 20 years later!

    I'm telling you, people, this was the movie of a generation and we're only realizing it now.

  5. i haven't heard of this one before...certainly intrigued enough to consider picking this one up!

  6. "essentially ended with Major Payne in 1995"
    You didn't like major payne?

    "Making matters worse, his uncle is played by Fred Gwynne, otherwise known as Herman Munster from 'The Addams Family'"
    Why does that make matters worse? Fred was good in the film.

    But also leads to a tender romance.
    The best part of the movie. Actually, Milly started liking Eric before she found out he could fly. Her teacher asked her to spend time with Eric and it started happening naturally.

    "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"
    Plus the fact that Milly gets wasted half way through the flick and the word retard is thrown around.

  7. Sounds good, RC - just remember to put yourself in the mindset of a little kid. This is a movie about a flying boy, after all.

    Thanks for chiming in, Film-Book. I think Major Payne ended a couple of careers - Castle's and Damon Wayans (Marlon and Keenan Ivory are still doing a bit of work). But truth be told I've never even seen the whole thing. I think I get it confused with Pauly Shore and In the Army Now.

    And I was just making a joke about Eric having lost his parents and then being forced to live with Herman Munster. Gwynne was solid, though - this was actually one of his last movies, too.

    And wow, I don't remember Milly getting wasted, but yeah - probably not going to make it in a family movie in 2009.

  8. Everytime this movie is on one of the movie channels I feel compelled to watch it. It has just the right amount of Fred Savage in it (not much...kind of like The Princess Bride) and the acting from the two young stars is actually really good.

    It has its cheesy moments but that was the 80's. A movie everyone should see at least once.

  9. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Stinger. I wish this would show up more on cable but I've never come across it, hence my synopsis-lite here.

    "Just the right amount of Fred Savage" - ha, there really is a limit, isn't there? I think it was reached in Little Monsters.

  10. I just watched this on cable the other day! I loved it, haha. I would have been too young to see it in the theater back then but I doubt if it was shown here in the Philippines at all. I loved it though and will be linking here from my blog once I finish my simple review. :)

  11. Hi Vera, thanks for stopping by and commenting on this old one! I wish I would come across this movie on TV one day, but the rerun films on cable television (at least basic cable) are the same old ones, Pirates of the Caribbean or something starring Nicolas Cage...

  12. I was searching for the title of this movie for many many many years! (I watched it when I was a kid, and I just remember the water-gun scene, just like you)
    Thanks a lot for helping me remind it!
    I'm going to watch it again.

    1. Thanks for visiting and reminiscing, Youli. I think that water gun scene is a high point from 80's family movies. Classic!


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