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Fly Away: An Absorbing Film About Autism

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Many people may want to shy away from seeing this film, but that is exactly why they should see it. What the world needs now, besides love sweet love, is empathy. Too many of us are so caught up in our own needs and desires that we sometimes cannot even see anyone else, let alone sympathize; and that is just one facet of life that is explored with great diligence in Fly Away, an independent narrative feature from writer, producer, and director Janet Grillo.

The best thing a serious, no-nonsense movie can do is give us a glimpse into the world of someone whose experiences are so far away from our own that they are difficult for us to even imagine. Fly Away is an intimate story about a divorced mother with a 16-year-old autistic daughter, and although it is set in a quiet suburban neighborhood, it has -- in its own way -- as many twists and turns as a good thriller. If I may borrow the words of one of its characters, Fly Away "really knows how to throw a punch."

What is remarkable about this movie is its pacing. It has a rhythm to it, like a symphony. It's at times loud, soft, beguiling, and boisterous. Its many melodic lines intertwine in almost perfect harmony. I say "almost" because, otherwise, the film might have approached being maudlin, and it is anything but that. It is hard, tough, and as we follow Jeanne, the mother played by Beth Broderick, through her suffocating environment, we are able to balance our lives against hers because she is so much like most of us. She is more like a real person than a fictional character, and therefore a rarity in movies nowadays.

Jeanne is multidimensional in a very real, down to earth sense: the many facets of her life converge upon her from all quarters. Besides being the mother of a severely autistic child, a full-time responsibility in itself, she is also trying to run a consulting business of sorts with a less-than-fully-sympathetic partner; she is in a perpetual struggle with the principal of her daughter's "special" school; and she must constantly battle with her ex-husband, who cannot handle being with their daughter and so is reluctant to help, even when Jeanne needs him most.

Broderick plays Jeanne with a lost look on her face. She is overwhelmed by her circumstances, but is determined to persevere. One day, when her ex does take Mandy for an afternoon, he advises her to use her free time to get her hair done, as if she doesn't have anything better to do. She goes back into her house, looks appraisingly in the mirror, sees that she is still an attractive woman, but then realizes, sadly, that it doesn't really matter anymore. It is a sublime 30 seconds of acting, the kind of moment sometimes overlooked in films, but striking if noticed.

In stark counterpoint to Jeanne is Mandy, the autistic daughter who is not like most of us. Mandy is played by Ashley Rickards, a young lady who should win an Academy Award for best supporting actress. She is that convincing. Her performance is both frightening and wonderful. Director Grillo lets us take small steps into Mandy's world by juxtaposing scenes of bright color with scenes of dreary darkness. We see Mandy on a sunny morning, drawing with brilliantly colored crayons at the kitchen table, and then we see her in the middle of the night in her darkened bedroom screaming about what a bad person she is. Mandy's life seems to be one of extremes. Her shining exuberance is often a heartbeat away from dark violence. Broderick and Rickards hit all the notes perfectly. Their duet is really something to see.

To complicate the lives of Jeanne and Mandy even more, a new neighbor enters the scene, a man around Jeanne's age who seems almost too good to be true. This intriguing yet suspiciously jolly white knight is played to perfection by Greg Germann, who brings just the right amount of ambiguity to the role (something that Germann is always particularly good at, by the way). We struggle along with Jeanne to try to figure him out while stepping very carefully. At one point Jeanne asks him why he doesn't try to date a woman who is not in her particular situation, and as he stands nonplussed, we -- right in step with her -- wonder what his answer can possibly be.

After many changes in key, when the symphony that is this film comes to a close, we see that Jeanne may be about to face her biggest challenge yet. An ending can be seen as a new beginning, and this film leaves me hoping for a sequel.

Fly Away opens in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, on Friday, April 15. And it will be available on VOD, DVD, and Digital on Tuesday, April 26.