There are lots of perfectly manicured lawns, white folks dog-walking in the park, and playgrounds whose only disturbance is when a girl bites her father on the arm in Fly Away, a film about a hardworking mother (played by Beth Broderick with Ariana Huffington froideur) and her autistic daughter (Ashley Rickards). The mother’s unwavering allegiance to the daughter’s challenges, and her ability to keep it all together without shedding a single tear, is both what is right about the film’s intention and wrong with its execution. We see how convenient it is for the mother to nurture this contract of codependence, but are hardly ever allowed any fissures in her robotic diligence, not a single moment in which she considers something other than the impeccable management of the situation.
The mother is so involved in creating a world in which only her daughter is allowed (“I lost the knack for social interaction”) that the outside world becomes a nuisance she can place blame on. When the daughter has screaming and violent fits, which is often, she remains as calm as an actress putting her oxygen mask in an airplane instructional video, quickly displacing guilt from the daughter to whoever will take it. School officials and her ex-husband seem to agree that the daughter belongs in a different school, but Mom isn’t having any of it: “Just because you can’t handle it, it doesn’t mean my daughter belongs in an institution.”
We’ve seen this all before, in the 1994 TV film David’s Mother specifically, in which Kirstie Alley played an autistic boy’s over-controlling mother named, I swear, Sally Goodson. In both films the mother is so invested in making the mother-child bubble impenetrable to any outside opinion or romantic suitor that her own selfhood depends on reiterating the challenges of the child. They also both suffer from a generic sterility we’ve come to associate with made-for-TV movies. The screaming fits get repetitive, the mother’s commitment reiterated ad nauseam, the meek, nice neighbor who wants to help is turned down, and yet the sensitivity of its subject is treated from a distance. Non-autistic women break down too, but we never see that in Fly Away. Except when the mother almost crashes the car because of the daughter’s out-of-control playing blocks her view. The tables turn and it’s the daughter who tries to calm down the mother, utilizing her usual words of appeasement: “breathe.” But even then, it’s the well-composed weeping of an accountant. At least Kirstie Alley didn’t mind making a spectacle of herself.