The lovely, heartbreaking "Fly Away" benefits from superb performances and a gripping story managed with simplicity and grace by writer-producer-director Janet Grillo. As sensitive and affecting as this mother-daughter drama may be, the film skillfully bypasses its genre's potential pitfalls, opting for intimacy over sensationalism, poignancy over sentimentality.
Jeanne (Beth Broderick) is a single mother devoted to the care of her daughter, Mandy (Ashley Rickards), an autistic teenager soothed by repetition — songs, food, phraseology — but prone to uncontrollable outbursts and rages. It's an often untenable situation for the overwhelmed but deeply loving Jeanne as she juggles Mandy, a shaky career, her skittish ex-husband — and Mandy's father —Peter (JR Bourne), the surly principal (actress-comedian Reno) at Mandy's special-needs-oriented public school, and a budding romantic interest (Greg Germann, charming). Something's gotta give, though, and it's pointing toward placing Mandy in a therapeutic residential facility, a move the protective Jeanne cannot yet reconcile. It all makes for a powerful, authentic journey.
Broderick is wonderful, a delicate mix of the resolute and resigned, her face a quietly expressive map of pain and pride. But enough can't be said about Rickards, best known from TV's "One Tree Hill," who so convincingly embodies Mandy's wild child spontaneity, startling effusiveness and unwieldy physicality. She's remarkable — in a remarkably challenging role.