History is all in the mind of the teller.
--older Mikey (Tom Hanks)
Radio Flyer as a young teenager, i had a clear idea of what the film was about. A mother and her two young boys leave home in New Jersey to start a new life in California. Mom (Lorraine Bracco) meets a new man who calls himself The King, and marries him. The boys don't like The King, and he does bad things to Bobby (Joseph Mazzello). Bobby has nowhere else to turn, so with the help of his big brother Mikey (Elijah Wood), they create a flying machine out of a wagon, and Bobby flies away. He can finally be happy again. Bobby sends postcards to Mike from the countries he had visited. He was saved by his big brother.
Sure, I was a naive 12-year-old, but that's what I got out of it. I loved it. What kid doesn't dream of flying away?
Then I saw the film again as an adult many years later and I saw layers I had never seen before. The abuse was more extreme than I imagined. The themes of isolation were more prevelant. Throughout the film, there was a great sense of dread. There were more than a few subtle hints that Bobby didn't survive in the end.
Radio Flyer was slaughtered by critics. It tanked in the box office. It's a blip in the careers of Wood, Mazzello, Bracco, John Heard, Tom Hanks, writer David Mickey Evans and director Richard Donner. It's a shame because it needs to be seen with an open perspective. A older kid can enjoy it without knowing too much about what really happened to Bobby. And an adult can appreciate the real beauty of the film: the magical bond between two brothers, strengthened during troubling times.
Roger Ebert, a professional critic whose opinion I greatly respect, is very close-minded about this one. He writes, "The movie is a real squirmarama of unasked and unanswered questions. Who is this movie made for?" He mirrored the thoughts of many others in that it is tonally confused. Is it a fantasy for kids? Or is it a drama about child abuse for adults? My answers: Yes and yes. Radio Flyer is a multifaceted film, a rare, thoughtful story that caters to two very different audiences.
For older teens and adults, it's clear that the older Mike made up the ending. "History is all in the mind of the teller," he tells us. Bobby is no longer with us. Did he crash in the flyer, or was he beaten to death by The King? Well, let me ask you: does it matter? The truth is that Bobby tried to run away, he tried to escape, and he just couldn't. Bobby's death was inevitable.
This is dark, heavy stuff. It's all too common in this world. Children are abused and sometimes there's no one there to help them. The mother in this situation loved her two boys, but she either had no knowledge of what was happening or, more likely, she had no courage or strength to put a stop to it. His brother can only do so much, and it's clear that as he got older, he filled his mind with some fiction that made Bobby's life story easier to swallow. Mike wasn't ready to tell his kids the real truth. He wasn't ready to face the truth himself.
That's just my interpretation, and who's to say it's right or wrong? There's a theory floating around stating that Bobby is a figment of Mike's imagination. There is no Bobby. Mike was the one who got beaten up, built the machine to escape, and eventually became a pilot and learned to fly (which explains why the film opens and closes on an air field). It's sketchy, but I'll buy it. There are scenes and lines in the movie that can be interpreted as such.
Evans and Donner leave enough loose ends dangling to allow us to figure it out ourselves. It's a puzzle, but not necessarily a perplexing one. I'd say it's more like a comforting puzzle. Radio Flyer shows us just enough to give us the big picture.
And isn't that something special?