In honor of Special Education Week, watch this touching film with your family:
Milly (Lucy Deakins), her mother, Charlene (Bonnie Bedelia), and her brother, Louis (Fred Savage), move into a new home, still feeling bereft over the loss of the father of the family. Milly sees a mysterious boy (Jay Underwood) on the roof next door. She finds out that his name is Eric, and that he is autistic. He has never spoken, and ever since his parents were killed in a plane crash when he was five, he has apparently thought he was a plane. He lives with his alcoholic uncle, who confides to Milly that Eric really can fly. Adjustment to the new environment is difficult. Charlene is overwhelmed by the computers at her new job. Louis is terrorized by neighborhood bullies who won’t let him ride around the block. Even the dog Max is vanquished by the neighborhood Doberman.
At school, Milly befriends Eric, and when an understanding teacher (Colleen Dewhurst) sees that he responds to Milly, she asks her to work with him as a project for school, telling her that he doesn’t need a doctor as much as he needs a friend. Milly spends a lot of time with Eric, reading him stories and trying to teach him to understand and not just imitate. He does not speak, but when a ball is thrown at Milly’s head, he protects her by catching it.
Milly falls off a bridge on a class trip, and insists that Eric saved her by flying. A psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) tells her that her mind played tricks, and gently gets her to admit that her father killed himself when he found he had cancer.
Eric is sent to an institution. He somehow escapes, and he and Milly run away from the guards sent to retrieve him. They are chased up to the roof of the high school, where we discover that he really can fly. Eric and Milly float off together, to the astonishment of the entire community. Eric speaks at last, telling Milly he loves her, and flying away forever. She realizes why he had to leave when the scientists and journalists arrive the next day. Eric’s influence continues. Charlene masters the computer. Louis triumphs over the bullies. Max even scares away the Doberman. “He made us believe in ourselves again…We’re all special. We’re all a little like Eric. Maybe we can’t soar off into the clouds. But somewhere, deep inside, we can all fly.”
Discussion: This is a charming fantasy with a lot of heart and outstanding performances by three terrific kids who keep up with some of the finest adult actors in movies. Eric and Milly heal each other by responding to each other. For him, she provides the first reason he has ever had to try to make contact with another person. For her, he provides a reason to feel, and to give to another person, especially important after the loss of her father.
Questions for Kids:
Why was Eric so important to Milly? Why was she so important to him?
What did Eric teach Milly’s family?
Where do you think he will go next?
Why did Louis get so upset about his action figures being out in the rain?
Connections: Writer-director Nick Castle also directed “The Last Starfighter.” Bonnie Bedelia, who starred in “Heart Like a Wheel,” is the aunt of former child star Macaulay Culkin. Many of the other performers are better known for television appearances. This was the first movie appearance for Fred Savage, who went on to star in television’s “The Wonder Years,” and appeared in “The Princess Bride.” Fred Gwynne will be familiar to old-time television fans as Herman Munster and as Officer Muldoon of “Car 54 Where Are You.” Mindy Cohn starred for many years in “The Facts of Life.” And if you pay close attention, you will catch a glimpse of future “90210” superstar Jason Priestley as Gary.
Activities: This is a fantasy, and is in no way intended to be an accurate portrayal of autism. But kids who want to know more about this mysterious disease may want to read books like An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks (of “Awakenings”). “David and Lisa” has a more dramatic portrayal of two disturbed teenagers reaching out to help each other. Teenagers will appreciate Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar -winning portrayal of an autistic savant in “Rain Man.”