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Navigating Autism On-Screen

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    Writer, producer and director Janet Grillo dives headfirst into the subject of autism in “Fly Away,” (2011; 85 min.), drawing on her own life -- Grillo's son, Matthew is autistic.

    Opening at the West End Cinema (2301 M St. N.W.) on Friday, "Fly Away" chronicles the life of single mother Jeanne (Beth Broderick), who is raising an autistic teenage daughter.

    One of the most penetrating aspects of the film is the repetitiveness of the characters' lives. Niteside caught up with Grillo and asked how parents of autistic kids retain their patience, day in and day out. 

    “Most kids are diagnosed around age two-and-a-half to three, which is already at the end of the most crucial window [for intervention]," she said. "The meter is running and the clock is ticking, and you have a choice: Take care of your own needs, or save your child's life. Every waking hour becomes a therapeutic opportunity. You become your child's primary interventionist.”

    Lighter moments in the film circle around reactions from outsiders -- the audience may find itself cheering the characters on when intolerance from others make them laugh. “Humor is a great defense and coping mechanism," Grillo noted. "Makes for a better day!”

    While Jeanne in the film is a single mother, her daughter's father is involved in her life... and then Jeanne starts dating again.

    So what about the differences between mothers and fathers in how they deal with family crises? “I believe that in most cases the mother is the primary caregiver in a family," Grillo said. "Fathers are involved and loving parents, but even in the most 'feminist' of families which I know, the mother cannot help but feel consumed by her children's needs.”

    There are some riveting scenes that come via the brilliant acting in the film, most prominent in a scene when daughter Mandy (Ashley Rickards) pulls past her own limitations to comfort her mother in distress. It is a total role reversal.
     
    “When we began rehearsing, we spoke about a deeply reciprocal bond between them as a constant, but [it's] often invisible to the naked eye," Grillo said.

    "To give her mother what her mother has given to her, as a measure of her love is her capacity to love. ...[T]the measure of love is how you rise beyond your own needs to meet that of the beloved,” she said. In the scene, that capacity is exhibited in spades.

    You can watch the trailer here.