Friday, May 25, 2007

Grimm idyll reviewed

Some friends recently loaned us a DVD of the 1992 film Radio Flyer they’d picked up on a recent visit to Europe. Their better-half declares it a favourite, so she snapped it up when she saw it because it isn’t yet available here in Australia (‘though it soon will be).

I didn’t recall having seen this movie, and in this instance my memory can’t have failed me, because one way or another it is certainly memorable. It’s possible that, at time of its release, I’d spurned the opportunity to see it, as it has tended to be pitched at younger audiences. That’s odd, because even with its PG13 rating, I’d expect that most younger teens would almost certainly require that parental guidance in the washup.

Anyway, in return for the loan, I promised to review the film, so my remarks here constitute said review. Prospective viewers of the film are warned that the following probably contains mega-spoilers.

Radio Flyer is a bittersweet tale, told in flashback to the 1960s, alternating between childhood idyll and modern Grimm fairytale. It concerns two young brothers, Mikey and Bobby, whose lives are thrown into upheaval with the arrival in their lives of a brutal, monstrous stepfather.

The young actors who portray the two boys distinguish this film with performances that, on the whole, are convincing, occasionally deeply affecting, and at times utterly enchanting.

The stepfather, as a screen creation, is very much a cipher. His face is almost never seen except obliquely, so there’s a sense of the faceless menace about him. And he likes his stepsons to call him “the King”, according himself an exalted position he knows he will never even remotely enjoy in real life — and deservedly so.

While his wife is out working double shifts as a waitress, the King is wont to hang out in the garage, drinking copiously, while indulging his fancy for both kinds of music — that is, Country and Western. The King is particularly partial to Hank Williams Senior, whose song ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’ seems to echo around the family home almost constantly whenever he’s about.

The mind-numbing drone of ‘Jambalaya’ is used to appalling effect in the film, notably in a sequence that climaxes in a particularly, dreadfully brutal incident. Recorded by Williams in 1952, ‘Jambalaya’ was covered in 1973 by Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose fans may never listen to the song in the same way again, after hearing Williams’ cheesy original warp into Hans Zimmer’s chilling score.

It soon becomes apparent that the King has been subjecting the smaller boy, Bobby, to vicious beatings. The children, however, shield this terrible secret from their mother — because “she’s happy now” with the King

The sustained abuse meted out by their stepfather leads inexorably to the brothers conceiving a desperate, yet fantastical, plan for Bobby to escape the King’s torments. As the adult Mike (played by Tom Hanks), recounting the story for his own young sons in voice-over narration, earnestly explains:

Who the King of terrors couldn’t see; who he couldn’t look into the soul of; and who he couldn’t get his hands on — he couldn’t hurt.

Bobby was going away — to faraway places where the King could never hurt him again.

We’re shown Mikey and Bobby resolutely wheeling an improvised flying machine along a road, along which they have to wait at a rail crossing for a train to pass. At that juncture, it could possibly occur to the audience that a lot of trouble and grief may have been avoided had Bobby instead simply taken one of those trains to those faraway places.

For it seems that many viewers have found the ending of Radio Flyer to be at best inconclusive, and even profoundly unsatisfactory. Reviewing the film, Roger Ebert waxed incandescent in summing up the issues as he saw them, thus:

I was so appalled, watching this kid hurtling down the hill in his pathetic contraption, that I didn’t know which ending would be worse. If he fell to his death, that would be unthinkable, but if he soared up to the moon, it would be unforgiveable — because you can’t escape from child abuse in little red wagons, and even the people who made this picture should have been ashamed to suggest otherwise.

Who was this movie made for? Kids? Adults? What kid needs a movie about a frightened little boy who is at the mercy of drunken beatings? What adult can suspend so much disbelief that the movie’s ending, a visual ripoff from E.T., inspires anything other than incredulity? What hypothetical viewer could they possibly have had in mind?

And so on. Having thus warmed up — and, in the process, having reduced Radio Flyer to being simply a “message film” — Ebert then really takes the film’s makers to task. Of course, anyone who takes a similarly literal interpretation of the film, particularly its ending, would likely tend to agree with the general gist of Ebert’s assessment.

But, to the question of “what hypothetical viewer had they in mind?”, the answer may be that there are plenty of movie geeks out there who are prepared to rise to such challenging material. The Wikipedia entry for Radio Flyer notes that “several theories have emerged concerning Bobby’s real fate” :

  • Bobby’s journey is a metaphor for the child’s suicide, due to his severe abuse.
  • The Radio Flyer couldn’t really fly, and Bobby died during the liftoff attempt. But at least he got away from his stepfather.
  • Bobby was beaten to death by his stepfather, “The King”. Mikey, the older brother, suppressed and changed this memory to a more fantastical ending.
  • Bobby, who got beaten by the stepfather, was really a figment of older brother Mikey’s imagination. Mikey was abused, and he used “Bobby” to dissociate from the abuse...

That last intriguing theory is to some extent supportable in the viewing of certain aspects of the film’s narrative.

For example, after Mikey leaves a tearful Bobby at home so that he can go play ball with the other neighbourhood kids, the simultaneous beatings both brothers endure — Mikey at the hands of his new friends, and Bobby at the hands of the King — merge into a nightmarish tableau of explicit and implied brutality.

On escaping, albeit bloodied and bruised, from his playmates, Mikey returns home to find Bobby gone. He prays in desperation for God to “make it that he’ll be okay”, promising that he’ll “never, ever leave him again”. The next scene cuts to a hospital ward, with an unscathed Mikey sitting at the bedside of his battered little brother.

In the end, perhaps, audiences are left with at least two possibilities: Either the screenplay was somewhat poorly conceived and/or executed; or, it operates on so many levels that it defies any universally acceptable appraisal. Whatever view one takes, the film’s strengths, flaws, incongruities and ambiguities virtually guarantee that audiences will be vehemently polarised about its overall merit.

For what it’s worth, my own verdict on the film’s ending is that Bobby was indeed killed in his attempt to flee in the death-trap he’d cobbled together with his well-meaning big brother.

This becomes apparent when the final scene cuts back to the adult Mike, in which our narrator seems visibly stricken, perhaps with grief and guilt, even on the verge of tears. At that point, the penny should drop with the audience that Mike, as a child, constructed the fantasy of his beloved brother’s successful escape, because the alternative was simply too terrible for his child’s heart to countenance.

This impression is underscored by adult Mike repeating the caveat with which he began his narration: “History is in the mind of the teller.” He adds wistfully, “That’s the way I remember it.”

There are other jarring cues, such as when one of adult Mike’s sons asks, “Is that where we got Sampson?” The father answers, “Yeah, that’s exactly where we got Sampson!” He had already overlooked a telling detail of the account he had just given — namely, that Sampson, the pet turtle of his and Bobby’s childhood, had long ago flown away with Bobby “to faraway places”.

To take at random just one more example, the adult Mike’s account of the boys’ encounter with the local legend, Fisher, could only have occurred, as depicted, in a child’s fantasy.

Ebert evidently regards such an ending — with Bobby’s cruel, senseless death — as “unthinkable”, but seems to overlook that the “unthinkable” is, regrettably too often, a design-feature of the real world. Crucially, the kind of position espoused by Ebert ignores the central tragic theme of the film, which is the Icarus-like naivety and ambition of youth, driven to extremity by cruel fate and outrageous circumstance. For Bobby is indeed a modern, pint-sized Icarus who fell to earth.

Anyway, that’s show biz. But, of course, it’s reasonable to question whether Radio Flyer has contributed anything positive with regard to the grave, real-world problem of child abuse. The film would almost certainly have affected its audiences, but it’s not unreasonable to be sceptical about whether its legacy would add up to anything much more than a movie geeks’ parlour game of “what really happened to Bobby?”.

Radio Flyer was directed by Richard Donner, whose previous credits included the Superman and Lethal Weapon series of films. He took over after the writer, David M. Evans, was dumped, apparently due to directorial inexperience. Donner is said to have re-written some of the screenplay, which may have modified something of Evans’ original intent.

Incidentally, young Mikey is played by a very youthful Elijah Wood, who of course went on to enjoy success as an adult actor, notably playing Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A celebrated child-actor of his time, Wood’s juvenile credits included the thriller The Good Son — which I’ve always thought of as a sort of Dennis the Menace meets Lord of the Flies by way of The Omen (the latter film was also directed by Donner).


Finally got around to adding images from the film, courtesy of, and with thanks to, Rae’n’Stu’s brilliant daughter Mel.


Blogger Caz said...

Excellent film review Jacob, and you'll forgive me, I'm sure, if I never see the film.

It sounds horribly depressing.

I don't mind bleak films, but I'm not fond of films based around violence against women or children.

On the news the other day it was noted that 18 children under the age of 12 months died in Victoria last year, having fallen through the cracks, or their cases "closed too quickly", by Dept of Human Services.

Real life is brutal enough.

26/5/07 10:50 PM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Yeah, Caz, that was a really ugly set of numbers in such a rich society as ours.

A REVIEW of deaths among children known to Victorian child protection authorities has found that almost half had their cases closed prematurely.

The report by the Victorian Child Death Review Committee, which examined 13 deaths between 2004-06, found that six had their cases closed early.

It also found that 18 children known to Child Protection died last year, up from 11 the previous year.

Problems with case closures, the report states, were most common in situations involving chronic neglect where families were subject to multiple notifications.

Abysmal! I haven't seen anything yet by way of response from the Vic govt. I trust that Minister Pike will have something useful to offer about this.

And yes, I'll certainly understand if you want to avoid seeing this film. There are some delightful evocations of childhood wonder and fantasy, but to paraphrase Ebert, what ADULT needs a movie about a frightened little boy at the mercy of drunken beatings?

Sure, it's "only a movie", but it's at times not easy to watch. Aside from the (mostly implied) violence, I felt like sobbing and found it difficult to continue when it became obvious what disaster those laddies were driven to in order to find escape.

If there's a "message" in the film, it must be that the consequences of abuse has no bounds. The Tom Hanks character - Mikey as a grown-up - comes across as a damaged individual, for all the solace he seems to find in his imagination.

I even came to suspect maybe that his two young sons also exist only in his mind. But let's not go there.

27/5/07 12:07 PM  
Anonymous Raelene P said...

Thanks Jacob, good effort but, no no no no I refuse to believe Bobby dies. If the fantasy ending is to darned unPc then, I'll take the imaginary playmate theory thanks. And I hope your not implying I am a movie geek ???

28/5/07 3:15 PM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Good of you to drop by, Rae.

"I hope your [sic] not implying I am a movie geek"

Um, um, er... why, hell no-o-o-o, I would bite my tongue first.

"I refuse to believe Bobby dies"

Hmmm, I'm familiar with your obstinate refusal to face the cold, hard reality which even Tom Hanks knows deep-down to be true.

At least your apparent endorsement of the IP theory suggests there may be some hope for you yet. So now you'll just have to come to terms with the idea that Mikey grew up to be a quaintly eccentric individual who sends postcards to himself, signed by an imaginary munchkin with whom he is no longer closely dissociated. And wonder if he lets his imaginary sons read them.

You'll recall, anyway, how towards the end, the missus suspected that it was an "alter ego" situation. She arrived at that conclusion independently, before I looked into all the geekery critiqueries. She can often be quite fey about that sort of thing, so maybe I'll get behind the IP theory too.

Hey, perhaps someone could do an online survey, to settle the question once and for all.

29/5/07 9:38 PM  
Blogger Caz said...

"If there's a "message" in the film, it must be that the consequences of abuse has no bounds.

Yes Jacob.

I have, and will, always believe that it's a nice little adult salve to suggest that children "get over" abuse. Rationalizing abuse away - "children are so resilient" - is an additional abuse.

Even those who grow into responsible and ordinary adults carry, I'm sure, a hideous burden and exert a great deal of their life's energy merely holding it together each day to sufficiently convey that that they are just like everyone else – really!

This is true, of course, for adults who have endured hideous events. People don’t “get over” stuff. Neither children.

We do our fellow humans the most awful injustice and disservice when we, for our own comfort, fall back onto the cliché of the wonders of the human spirit.

1/6/07 9:09 PM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Very true about the salve angle - "get over it," eh?

Well, most do as best they can, one suspects, but the damage is self-limiting and self-perpetuating. It's visited on further generations and the wider society in unforseeable ways.

2/6/07 4:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home