Feb 22nd: “The Boy Who Could Fly” (1986)
Celebrating 28 days of underrated 80s cinematic treasures.
As a writer, I’m very very aware of the “rule of three”. You introduce something. You then make it important by doing it again, but on the third, you either subvert expectations, or you use that as its breaking point. In writing, you really only need three events for the straw to break the camel's back. Movies that tell of events, or racing, or action pieces, almost always stick to this formula. The Boy Who Could Fly lines up with the code perfectly.
An easy example is as follows: The young boy Louis is introduced to bullies in a race around the block. He gets away. On the second attempt, he doesn’t get away clean and his tricycle is broken. But on the third attempt, everything goes his way and he triumphs.
If anything, it fun to connect the threads of three in this film, but at the same time, I don’t mean to reduce this film into an example of formulaic structure. The concept is fun. The reality is a little strange, and for the most part, it’s a metaphor for taking a chance. A chance to overcome our limitations.
The Boy Who Could Fly is a film that needs no mechanicals or explanation. What we learn in 108 minutes isn’t much. The film is predictable and shameless of its approach to the three-act structure. It’s not apologetic for the antagonistic, comic approach to the rule of three. It’s a play on play, with setups hiding in plain sight.
But do we care about the mechanics? Do we note every trope and are we seriously doubtful of the message that may as well an affirmation printed on a million t-shirts. Dream big. Have faith. Trust openly, and most importantly, don’t let the world tell you that you can’t fly.
What keeps us engaged is the endearing nature of the performances, as soft as they may be, we can’t ignore the plight of a girl who doesn’t fit in, or her younger brother who struggles against territorial bullies. The mother struggles with taking a smaller role in work, and has the ultimate struggle that faced most adults in the eighties: the introduction of technology, namely in the form of the computer system.
Eric is the boy in the title of this story. A boy who locked himself away from society after his parents died in a plane crash. Eric didn’t have to be told about his parent’s fate. Legend has it that, safe in his home, he knew that it happened, and adopted the physical appearance, the mimic of an aircraft from that moment on.
His silence is the one thing that cannot be broken.
His condition takes on the form of cognitive post-traumatic stress disorder, and for over ten years, he has taken the form of the ghost of a plane, and he is psychologically in a holding pattern, beyond the outer marker. It seems nobody has been able to get through, that is until Milly arrives with her family, to the new home, new neighbourhood. This is a last chance story, as it seems as Eric reaches adulthood, he fate will be in the form of an institution after his Uncle’s failure to maintain sobriety while keeping his nephew on a tight leash.
Milly is not like your typical teenage girl struggling to fit in. In fact, even though this film relies on common triumph over adversity tropes, what it doesn’t do it provide her with an advisory. The film is as light as a feather, pun intended. There are no risks other than the sudden need to reach for the flowers she knows very well are not safe to reach. Suddenly she becomes a reckless dreamer without concept of gravity. Whatever metaphysical or magical qualities Eric has, it has an affect on her. But even that comes with a no risk guarantee, because we know from the rule of three, that Eric will not let her get hurt.
The metaphor of flight is indeed apt for all characters. They all need to take a leap against what is clearly a fight or flight fantasy film that touches on the light edges of some very serious circumstances. This film could have been much darker if handled differently, but indeed, this is a family film, and a good one at that.
All characters have flaws that are locked away. Things that they cannot access, and there’s a very good chance that they will all eventually come into a safe landing.
Irony would have it that this film didn’t fly at the box office. It however did have a life in home video and on television which was where most of us eighties kids remember it. Those in the late eighties who saw this movie in the Disney Channel however saw an even more watered down version of this film. Bad language was dubbed — a thing that the eighties were criminally prone to do for a lot of films shown on television — and the actor, Jay Underwood, who played Eric gave children a brief message at the end of the film, warning them not to try and fly themselves off the roof of their home, or any other roof for that matter. He explained the magic: that all the flying stunts were done with wires. No doubt there were some who tried, as they had during the late seventies when Superman came out. Disclaimers were never a thing, and it seems that The Boy Who Could Fly indeed set the trend for the “slippery when wet” sign, and political correctness fad that followed.
Do not try this at home kids.
Written by: Stephen Radford