More than a leap of faith

Fine fantasy explores magic of belief

Published: Sep 21 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, August 15, 1986.
THE BOY WHO COULD FLY. Music by Bruce Broughton. Written and directed by Nick Castle. Running time: 107 minutes. General entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional coarse language.
MILLY BELIEVES. AGAINST ALL LOGIC, 14-year-old Amelia "Milly" Michaelson (Lucy Deakins) knows that autistic Eric Gibb (Jay Underwood) shares with the birds and the angels the power of flight.    
    Milly believes that he once used it to save her life. She remembers a fall from a footbridge high over a rocky cascade, a fall interrupted by unconsciousness when her head hit the bridge's handrail.
    She remembers waking up in a hospital bed, unhurt but for the bruise on her forehead, and she remembers a vivid dream in which she flew with Eric through the night sky, sat with him on a cloud and then relived the death of her father.
    Now, as they stand together on the roof of Taft High School, she believes that he will fly again to save both their lives. Poised several stories above the paved schoolyard, she grips his hand as they drop over the edge . . .
    Nick Castle is a director who excites belief. In 1984, the sour summer of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Castle's emergence as a major moviemaker was like a renewal of faith.
    Seven weeks after the Lucas-Spielberg misfire opened, filmgoers received a double gift called The Last Starfighter. Not only was Castle's picture a timely treat, but it signalled the presence of a new, young talent capable of turning out terrific mass audience entertainment.
    That belief is confirmed with The Boy Who Could Fly, a splendid, original fantasy written and directed by the 38-year-old Californian. Filmed on Vancouver locations, Castle's picture is a unique flight into an imagination that is neither Disneyesque nor SpieIbergian.
    A story rooted in everyday reality, Castle's tale is edged with suspense. Despite its considerable humour and sunny setting, the spectre of death hovers in the wings.
    The Michaelsons — Milly, her mother Charlene (Bonnie Bedelia) and younger brother Louis (Fred Savage) — move into a new neighbourhood following the death of her father. Eric, the boy next door who "never spoke a word in his life," lost both of his parents in an airline disaster.
    Awakening in his room "the moment the plane went down," he is said to have spread his arms and disappeared into a private world. "The way he figured he could save them was by becoming an airplane." Milly learns.
    "He's been one ever since."
    A good-hearted young woman, Milly takes up the suggestion of her teacher, Carolyn Sherman (Colleen Dewhurst), that she work with Eric. As they grow closer, Milly begins to believe the impossible.
    Can the boy fly? In a Spielberg feature, there'd be no doubt. Castle, on the other hand, drops hints that Milly suffers from adjustment problems of her own.
    After her fall from the bridge — her "rescue," if it happened at all, is not shown — Milly is visited by a psychiatrist. We learn that Donald Michaelson (Dwight Koss) died by his own hand. We hear Dr. Granada (Louise Fletcher), Milly's kindly shrink, tell her that "sometimes we need to believe in a little magic when there's so much pain."
    Is Milly suicidal? As she stands on the edge with the silent, desperate Eric, is she acting out of genuine hope or terminal despair? Movies, after all, are not required to have happy endings.
    Castle's delicate balancing act, enhanced by fine performances from both Deakins and Underwood, produces the kind of universal entertainment that enthrals youngsters without boring more demanding adults. A first-rate family feature, The Boy Who Could Fly offers an exhilarating new look at the '"little magic" of belief.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1986. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In 2007, Jay Underwood wrote that "from childhood on, (acting) was all I ever remember wanting to do and God had blessed me with enough work throughout the years to be able to make my living doing it." The Boy Who Could Fly was his second feature film role, and in the years that followed he would return to Vancouver to star in director Gavin Wilding's 1994 feature comedy The Raffle, as well as episodes of such TV series as 21 Jump Street (1989), Millennium (1997), Hollywood Off-Ramp (2000), The X-Files (2001) and Miracles (2003). In 1995, he embraced evangelical Christianity, and in 2005 entered a seminary for further study. Following his graduation in 2007, he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Weaverville, California.
    One thing that Lucy Deakins shared with her The Boy Who Could Fly co-star was faith. In 1994, she graduated from Harvard with a degree in comparative religion. Something they did not share was a commitment to performing. Unlike Underwood, who would accumulate more than 50 feature film and television acting credits between 1986 and 2006, Deakins appeared in just four more features and three TV shows. In her early 30s, she embraced the law as her calling. Following her 2007 graduation from the University of Washington law school in Seattle, she joined the firm Norton Rose Fulbright in New York. Transferring to its Denver office in 2009, she rose to the position of Senior Associate, where her work in Energy and Natural Resources law won her the 2015 Colorado Rising Star award.  
    Celebrating his 68th birthday today (September 21), Nick Castle was my choice for a rising directorial star in 1986. With 1984's The Last Starfighter, he'd demonstrated the ability to strike out in interesting directions. Together with John Carpenter (and three others), he made his first cinematic impact writing the script for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, a student project that starred Johnny Crawford and won the 1970 live-action short film Oscar. Castle and Carpenter became friends, and Castle made his acting debut playing Michael Myers (aka "The Shape"), the hockey-masked homicidal maniac in Carpenter's first Halloween (1978) feature. They collaborated again on the screenplay for Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981). Although Castle's projects after The Boy Who Could Fly were expressions of his personal interests, they failed to fulfill the promise of popular entertainment. Neither Tap (1989), a  Gregory Hines vehicle celebrating dance, nor Dennis the Menace (1993), recalling a comic strip brat, managed to excite audiences. Major Payne (1995), his remake of 1955's Private War of Major Benson, was just too gritty for the intended family audience.