Fly Away opens on Jeanne (Beth Broderick), a single mother, as she is awoken by her teenage daughter’s cries. “Bad girl! I hate myself!” It might not be a surprising sentiment from a teenager in the throes of an angst-ridden moment, but Mandy (Ashley Rickards) is severe on the spectrum of autism, and the middle of the night is one of the times she communicates the clearest. Written and directed by Janet Grillo, Fly Away is a slice-of-life portrait of a small family at a crossroads. Jeanne has raised Mandy almost entirely on her own—making Mandy’s daily schedule, getting her to the school caravan, and calming her outbursts—in addition to the more typical parental duties. But as her parental obligations overtake her work, Jeanne’s business as a consultant begins falling apart, and as Mandy gets older and stronger, it’s clear that Jeanne needs new tools to foster Mandy’s independence or risk losing her altogether.
Both school officials and Mandy’s father pressure Jeanne to consider a boarding school for Mandy, but Jeanne views the option as giving up on her child or viewing her as a problem and not a person, as the rest of the world often treats Mandy. A remark from a stranger in an ice cream parlor—”If you can’t control her, don’t bring her out in public.”—makes the outside world’s attitude toward Mandy starkly clear.
When Mandy has a violent outburst at school—she pushes another student and later throws a desk—it results in suspension, and Jeanne must juggle her work with Mandy home all day. As she loses clients and the bills mount, Jeanne confronts a very painful truth: she alone can’t provide all that her daughter needs. And Jeanne discovers that in her focus to be a good parent, she’s forgotten to ask what Mandy actually wants.
Director Janet Grillo wrote Fly Away after the response to a short film she directed based on her own experience raising a son on the autism spectrum. At the festival where her short premiered, the parents of other autistic children had one resounding question: When would the short become a feature? “The sentiment was overwhelming,” she recalled at the SXSW Q&A, “they wanted someone to tell their story.”
Made for under $200,000 in 14 days, Fly Away tackles its subject matter with aplomb, telling a story with great complexity in which there are no absolute right or wrong answers. It offers nuanced performances from both its leads, Broderick and Rickards, and features a surprise appearance from comedian and performance artist Reno as the tough but caring principal at Mandy’s school.
I interviewed Grillo in the lobby of her hotel at the end of a frantic SXSW film festival. Despite gridlock traffic that made me nearly an hour late and the festival fatigue we both felt by this point, we had a lively discussion about the film, autism, and activism.
Bitch Media: You’d said that the film was really brought on by the requests of other special needs families after seeing your short, Flying Lessons. What is it that you’re hoping those families will take away from the feature?
Janet Grillo: I think there’s a very important healing process in feeling validated by seeing your story told. It’s the human endeavor: to have a voice is very important. And to feel that you are relevant, that you matter, and are seen—to become visible. That has just an essential, cathartic aspect of the human experience that we all need. And this is a community that has been in a great deal of pain and continues to be engaged in a very profound struggle that will carry on even after we die. And so I felt it was important for us, first and foremost, to honor through storytelling. Secondly, we hope that this can be a tool of activism. There’s a bill called the Combating Autism Act in front of Congress that was passed I think in 2006, and it’s up for reauthorization. One of the lobbying groups wants to show this film to Congress so that they can understand why we need to have these funds. Also, this is a way to communicate the situation to people whose lives have not been touched by autism, so that they really understand. My hope is that this film could move somebody’s heart toward our direction and help in every way that our community needs it, including just in understanding and compassion so that when a person encounters an adult with autism, they’ll understand what it is, they’ll identify it and will be receptive to them, so we won’t have moments like in the ice cream store.
BM: That moment made me think of what Mandy’s actually saying when she’s waking up in the middle of the night. She understands what people are saying to her and the messages that she’s getting are, “Not only are you not okay, but you aren’t good enough and you won’t ever be.”
JG: Exactly. People with autism have the full range of human feelings, emotions, and reflection to varying degrees, according to their ability to be cognitively more wholly mature. I think for a long time there was a misunderstanding in the medical community that people on the spectrum of autism were somehow fundamentally wired differently emotionally than we are and it’s clear that’s not the case.
BM: It’s really clear in the ice cream store that the woman who criticizes Mandy is talking to Jeanne as if Mandy’s not even there, as if Mandy can’t even hear her.
JG: Exactly—as if she’s a dog who’s barking too loudly. This is a girl who at age 16 feels horrible about how she’s falling short. This is the catch-22 of having a child with special needs: In order to love them and do your best by them and be the best possible parent to them, you’re constantly every day challenging them to their utmost so that they can fulfill it. So you’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure on them—which is counter-intuitive to parenting. As a parent, you want to express your love by accepting and there’s a way in which to accept is to abdicate when your child has this form of disability. This is a consistent struggle as a parent of a child with special needs, because on point, you’re doing a horrible disservice to them if you’re not constantly pushing to use every waking hour as a therapeutic opportunity, but then what message are you giving your kid? That they’re not enough, that they must do more. So it’s a horrible juggle. I think in our efforts to help our kids, we’re also hurting them in that way. But, just sitting back and letting it be isn’t the solution either.
BM: I’m also interested by the sense of ambiguity in this film. Everyone in the film is both right and wrong at the same time—there aren’t simple answers.
JG: My highest goal is to portray a moment of humanity. If you’re creating characters which each speak from their own truth, then everybody’s going to be right and everybody’s going to be wrong. Real acceptance is not to bypass all of the warts and difficulties, but to witness them and understand them, explore them, so that we can grow our hearts and have a bigger sense of what human nature is. I think in the normal range of human behavior most people are trying for some sense of decency, even though they’re trying up against their own weaknesses and wounds and character flaws. But to me, that’s the function of drama: to give us a grid system against which we can experience our own lives. That was the function of Greek drama: How do I understand my nature by seeing human nature depicted on a larger screen? That, to me, is the function and the value of making art through narrative storytelling. It gives you the opportunity to walk inside of human experience and really see the dimensions of it. That’s what interests me as the viewer and consumer of somebody else’s work, and the only reason that I do it. So it’s my highest aspiration to depict the complexity of a moment.
[SPOLIER ALERT—skip to the last paragraph if you’ don’t want to know how the movie ends.]
BM: There’s also a complicated push-pull aspect to it, in that other people are saying to Jeanne that she needs to explore other options, but she interprets that as, “You want me to put my daughter away,” as opposed to realizing maybe Mandy is the one that’s ready to move on. And it seems like that in the end.
JG: Yes. Mandy is the one that makes the choice. She’s making the choice to move her life forward. She’s a teenager, and this story is ultimately what happens between every parent and child. It’s at that time where they must carve their own path, and as a parent, you must recognize that you can’t meet their needs, the world has to meet their needs and they have to make their own choices. And when your child has special needs there’s a great deal at stake in crossing that threshold. But this is the same story. I really hope that it speaks to a shared experience.
Fly Away was acquired by New Video, who will distribute it in collaboration with Autism Speaks. It opened in limited theatrical release on April 15th, and will be available on DVD as well as through video on demand on April 26th. To find out more on where to see the film, visit the Fly Away website.