A review requested by Erin, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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Magical realism is a tough thing to get right in movies: it's a mode that's all about delicate tone, and movies have too many ways for over-eager filmmakers to lay things on too heavily, creating something leering and pushy rather than airy and ephemeral. In the case of The Boy Who Could Fly, the thing that's most responsible for puncturing that balance and leaving the film feeling as heavy as a fallen soufflé is the score by Bruce Broughton, which uses all the musical clichés of an '80s family film to shove us roughly from one emotion to the next. During its biggest emotional moments, the only reason it's not a completely shameless Superman rip-off is that it's trying to be an E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial rip-off at the same time. Still, the fact that The Boy Who Could Fly got close enough to working that it took the music to do it in speaks highly of it. It's at best an imperfect film, and cloying in too many ways, especially near the end, but it does things right that I absolutely did not expect it to, and it benefits from a cast that is, if also imperfect, up to some rather interesting things.

The story is your pretty basic '80s suburban dramedy: the Michaelson family - mom Charlene (Bonnie Bedelia), 14-year-old Milly (Lucy Deakins), and 8-year-old Louis (Fred Savage) - have just moved, following the death by cancer of husband and father Donald. It's a tough transition for everybody, and not just because of this tragedy: Charlene is finding that these new-fangled magic boxes called "computers" have changed the game so much since she was last in the working world that she needs to start more or less from scratch in a field where she used to be an expert, and Louis is finding tough neighborhood bullies for the firs time in his peaceful young life. In a somewhat odd turn, we'll actually end up spending the most time with the character who has the least conflict: Milly has the usual teenage trouble fitting into a new school, but her life mostly seems to be purring along neutrally. Within minutes of moving in, she's been forcibly befriended by Geneva Goodman (Mindy Cohn), and whatever troubles she faces aren't nearly enough to distract from her new fascination with her next-door neighbor Eric Gibb (Jay Underwood), whose bedroom window faces her. Eric is severely autistic, having never spoken a word in his life, and his parents died in a plane crash, an event that the boy seems to have been aware of somehow; now he spends his days on the roof of the house, tilting his arms back and forth like an airplane. And this will shortly prove to be the least odd thing about his behavior; he has an uncanny tendency to simply appear without warning, in ways that don't seem physically plausible. Add in that his caretaker and uncle, Hugo (Fred Gwynne) has developed a hell of an alcohol problem as a way of coping with whatever unnameable something is up with the boy, and there's an irresistible mystery for Milly to ponder and tease at. And presumably it doesn't hurt matters that Eric is cute.

There's an obvious gaping pitfall looming hugely in the middle of that scenario: it's basically a story about how a teen girl grows convinced that the autistic boy next door is literally magical. I won't say that writer-director Nick Castle - the friend of John Carpenter who played Michael Myers in Halloween, that Nick Castle - does a perfect job of navigating that pitfall, either. What almost works, and surely at least qualifies as a noble attempt, is the way that the film treats Milly's part in all of this. As she gets to know Eric better, she decides, with the wary support of kindly teacher Mrs. Sherman (Colleen Dewhurst), that she can cure him with The Power Of Love. For a lengthy stretch of the middle, the film views this attitude as mere hubris. Milly has the can-do attitude of any given  protagonist of any given family dramedy, and the movie willing to shade this into something more like arrogant stubborness than admirable positivity, aided by Deakins's very odd, but largely successful performance. I won't go so far as to say that she makes Milly off-putting, but she's certainly not clamoring for us to like the young woman and root for her; she seems a bit overkeyed and frantic at times, more desperate to put the world in some kind of order that she can control than in anything else.

In this, she's a good fit with Bedelia and Savage; between the three of them, the actors playing the Michaelsons are doing a pretty great job of showcasing the way that a family copes with major loss and changes through very loudly and aggressively declaring that they are, in fact, Not Stressed At All, And Doing Just Fine, Thank You. Bedelia is especially good at this, giving Charlene the kind of desperate edge that suggests someone who is concerned that, if she starts crying, she'll never be able to stop, and so she dispels all of her nervous energy in curt line deliveries and sharp movements. Savage's performance, while charismatic enough (it is not surprising in the slightest that he was able to transition this debut screen performance into a successful career), is still that of a little kid, prone to playing everything in a broadly exaggerated way, but Castle has channeled this energy well enough to make it seem that Louis is performing a kind of child-size anti-social toughness, trying to get something under his control in much the same way that Milly is, only doing it in a bouncy comic subplot, rather than the more subdued and gentle A-plot.

The Michaelsons, as written and as performed, are strong enough that it's a bit frustrating that The Boy Who Could Fly devotes so much attention to, well, the boy that could fly. For this, Milly grows increasingly certain, is Eric's secret, after he saves her from a fall (the fall itself, and the moment she hits her head, is a uniquely bold piece of filmmaking, a sudden violent intrusion that suggests that Castle was paying at least some attention to Carpenter). And, not to spoil anything, but she's right. I mean, she has to be right - this would be an even more subdued realistic drama if she wasn't, and nothing about the gentle humor, winking foreshadowing, and cloying soundtrack suggest that kind of realism. Certainly Gwynne's wildly overdone performance of a nervous drunk is barely justified if this is an Amblinesque fantasy about a flying boy; it would be beyond impossible if this was anything else.

At any rate, the focus on the Eric and Milly relationship is obviously what the film had in mind all along, but it also feels like taking the path of least resistance; this kind of low-key family-friendly (but with all the cursing and intimations of sex that made this era of family-friendliness more interesting than our own) magical realism was a proven formula in the mid-'80s, and it lets the film indulge in some very bright and goofy effects sequences as it heads towards the ending. It feels very marketable, let us say, though marketable in a sort of of bookish, quiet way that would rather young teens find it at their leisure, rather than loudly trumpeting itself to them (the font in the opening credits just screams "minor classic late-'70s YA novel"). But it's not the movie's strength, both because Underwood's beaming take on autism is so bland, compared to most of the other available performances (hell, I might even take Gwynne's out-of-control mugging - it is at least memorable), and because Milly is frankly more interesting when she's being prickly and stubborn than when she's being awestruck and charmed. This means that The Boy Who Could Fly has the unfortunate problem of growing increasingly trite and unengaging as it moves along, culminating in a breezy concluding voiceover that couldn't feel any more like a tossed-off "okay, we need to just get this thing wrapped up" gesture. But for a good hour or more, it feels like there's something here that the usual '80s dramedy isn't quite accessing, and even if this film doesn't end up accessing those things itself, at least it knows that they're out there.