Movie Tells Story of Mother and Her Autistic Daughter
Janet Grillo's new movie is a coming-of-age story about a single mother and her autistic teenager daughter when they find themselves as a crossroads.
However, the filmmaker wants you to know this is not an ABC After-School Special.
Remember those? Then you probably grew up in the '70s and '80s. Each one was a lesson barely disguised as a story. The dialogue served mostly to set up the talking points.
Grillo tells ParentDish she didn't write, direct and produce "Fly Away" as a tutorial on autism. She says she wanted to tell a universal story -- inspired partly by her personal experience as the mother of an autistic teenager -- where one of the characters has the disability.
But "Fly Away" is not about autism, she says.
It's about children growing up and parents letting go. "It's about the nexus point any parent faces," Grillo says. "This is not an issue story. This is about love. It's about what love calls us to do."
The movie opened this month, but because Grillo made the teenage character autistic instead of a vampire, it is only showing in a few cities. This is no one's idea of a Hollywood blockbuster. "This is a roll-up-your-sleeves, do-it-yourself movie," Grillo says.
It tells the story of Mandy, a 15-year-old girl who is charmingly offbeat one moment and impossible the next. This is due to her age and autism. Struggling to cope with both is Jeanne, her single mother. Jeanne finds her efforts to balance making a living, having a social life and caring for a special-needs daughter frustrating at best.
Now as Mandy stands at the brink of adulthood, she and Jeanne face wrenching decisions about the future.
All the conflicts are not necessarily tied up with a pretty Hollywood bow by the end of the picture. This is a true slice of life, Grillo says. "This is not a prettied-up picture. There's no good form of autism."
This is also not a picture of her own life. Grillo has a 17-year-old son with a high-functioning form of autism, but this is not his story. Nor is Mandy supposed to embody autism as a whole. Autism covers too broad a spectrum for anyone to create the quintessential autism character, Grillo says.
"If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person," she says.
Nonetheless, she says, autistic young people and their parents have a voice that deserves to be heard. "There's a fundamental need to share our story," she adds. "We want the larger world to hear our cry."
Grillo spends a great deal of time talking with people in the autism community.
In 2007, she was the executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning documentary "Autism: The Musical." She also served as a board member of Cure Autism Now (which merged with Autism Speaks in 2007).
It's interesting, she says, how many autistic children have creative and artistic parents. "There's a one-letter difference between autistic and artistic," she adds. "In our case, it's a talent, but at what point does it become a disability?"
Although "Fly Away" is not intended as a sermon or lesson, Grillo says she wouldn't mind if audiences carried something permanent away from it.
"If 'Fly Away' eases the pain of even one parent's torturous decision, or if it expands the heart of even one person untouched by autism to accept our children and appreciate our struggles, it will have been well worth making," she says on the movie's website.
"The authenticity of our story can provide insight and hope. Truth often does."
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