Film Review: Fly Away Home

Fly Away Home, directed by Carroll Ballard and starring Jeff Daniels as Tom Alden and Academy Award Winning Anna Paquin as Amy Alden, is a wonderfully unique twist on the classic growing up story. Amy Alden’s heartwarming rite of passage tale is intertwined with “Growing up Goose” in a fictional adaptation of Bill Lishman’s autobiography and his experiments with ultralights and bird migration. Addressing ecology, animal behavior, environmental activism, trust, and family, through impeccable photography and perfectly raw acting, this film touches both children and adults every time it is watched. Fly Away Home is a strong piece of environmental communication for a younger audience, who may be exposed to some of these conservational themes for the first time.

The opening scene, a startling and frightening car crash for a family film, leaves a somber tone over much of the plot as thirteen year old Amy struggles with her mother’s death and her new life in Canada with a father she hasn’t seen in nine years. Tom Alden, a crackpot inventor and sculptor à la Caractacus Potts from the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is unfamiliar with having his daughter around the house, and the two seem to regard each other reservedly. The screenplay is punctuated with poignant lines spoken by Amy and her father as they try to figure out their relationship, evoking a strong connection between Tom and the audience as they witness him strive to connect with his daughter. As bulldozers begin to flatten an area of swamp and forest at the edge of the Alden property, Tom passionately runs outside in his underwear yelling and screaming while Amy looks out from the house in utter confusion. Later on, however, Amy finds a nest of abandoned goose eggs in the wreckage and sets them up in a makeshift incubator in a drawer of her mother’s scarves. When the lonely and struggling girl watches the goslings hatch, her face lights up in awe and it is evident that she inherited some of her father’s love of nature. It soon becomes clear that the geese have imprinted on Amy, the first thing that they saw when they hatched, and that she will have to teach them to fly and migrate south. The scenes of the young girl running through the grass with growing geese following are kept short, but accompanied with the immaculate soundtrack that is only noticeable when it should be noticed. The climactic music that accompanies “Momma Goose” as she raises into the sky in a goose-shaped ultralight with the geese trailing her for the first time caused some tears to pool in a certain reviewer’s eyes.

It is clear throughout the trials and tribulations of raising wild geese, Amy is one of the many kids that has reaped benefits from the natural world. Amy seems to become more and more comfortable with her situation and with her father as everyone around her chips in to help her raise the goslings. 4-H programs across New York State have Incubation and Embryology projects for youth from ages 8–18 in order to help kids connect to nature. The objectives, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension website, are to: increase knowledge and develop personal confidence and leadership ability, develop youth interest in the science of embryology, provide learning experiences in incubation, hatching, and brooding, and provide opportunities to demonstrate skills mastered in embryology. The national bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, written by Richard Louv, discusses the various benefits of playing outside in nature to both the emotional and physical health of children. In watching Fly Away Home, it is clear that while Amy’s focus is elsewhere, on the goslings she is raising and trying to save, she is healing emotionally, both forgiving her father for missing her childhood as well as coming to grips with her mother’s death. She gradually has more and more dialogue with her father and begins to take charge of her campaign to teach the geese to migrate and have her own ideas to share with the team.

Although Tom Alden is not a model parent, in many ways he exemplifies parenting that has fallen by the wayside. Many critics of the film are disapproving of the level of supervision that Tom provides Amy. “Who would let their daughter fly an ultralight from Ontario to North Carolina with only lessons from a father who is seen semi-crashing in every other scene that he and his aircraft are in?” many lament. While many parents watching may also be critical of Tom’s apparent lack of control, “The Overprotected Kid,” an article in The Atlantic magazine, counters that giving kids the freedom to discover on their own is beneficial to development. When Amy realizes that the geese will only follow her into flight, not even her dad, she takes to the sky on her own, without any instruction. Although this is dangerous and she crashes to the ground with some minor scrapes, the Atlantic article states that facing risks are essential for self-confidence and courage, which Amy clearly gains from her escapade. Parents of young teens might balk at the thought of their children attempting a similar stunt because it seems like a huge risk that could have had much worse consequences, but at the same time, the article states that “the cultural understanding of acceptable risk began to shift, such that any known risk became nearly synonymous with hazard.” Amy came out determined to learn how to fly and protect her birds.

Flying is not the only thing that Amy learns about during her adventure, however. Before Amy and Tom develop a real connection, Tom participates in a public hearing about the development of the forested area near his property. One participant stands up to voice his opinion: “I’d like to say it’s no this project that worries me…as much as the ones that’ll follow in its wake. I don’t believe many of you want this to happen. I wish you’d consider the fields and streams your children play in. The clean air, the clean water…the general peace of mind. And let’s not forget the animals. They’re on the brink of leaving here forever if this permit is passed…so think about it.” Lines like this may not impact the younger audience of the film, but adults will be struck by the simplistic argument to save nature. The town meeting is an example of activism and everything said is a strong example of environmental communication. The lines educate, alert, persuade, and shape the people’s and the audience’s perspectives of nature. The public sphere, the space where diverse voices engage in discussions about environmental issues, is here embodied by the public hearing. You can see the local ranger, the townspeople (both for and against), the industry, and the local officials at the public hearing all voicing their opinions on the matter. Tom speaks passionately against the development, just as he defends Amy and her geese until they are able to complete their journey south, and shows what true belief in a cause can do.

Coverage of Amy’s journey south with her geese ramps up as she crosses into the United States and gets some assistance from the Niagara Air Base. Beginning with the news in New York, “General Hatfield says he has never seen such an inspirational sight,” and continuing with short clips accompanied by impressive footage of a girl with her birds and what I am going to call “hero music” in the background, news spreads far and wide. As science coverage often reflects the controversial aspects, competing interests, and conflicting data, along with human interest, drama, oddity, and conflict, Amy’s story gets international attention. Radio stations, newspapers, and television coverage around the country follow her journey towards the controversial landing site in North Carolina. A development is proposed for a particular strip of land down there as well, and if migratory birds show up by November 1, the project will be cancelled. The media spreads the message of conservation, the message of hope, and the message of courage through an appeal to emotion. The audience of the film gets caught up in the pathos projected by the media’s support of Amy, and by the time television coverage shows all of the activists waiting on the beach for Amy’s arrival, you are on the edge of your seat watching for her to crest the hill just like everyone else. The activists hoist signs into the air proclaiming “Save the Wetlands,” the ornithologist who aided Amy and her father in their flight plan sits down in front of the bulldozer, and it is all captured on television and shown across the country.

Throughout the film, there is a constant conflict between the preservation and/or conservation of nature and the human exploitation of nature. The bulldozers at the beginning and end of the film bring this antagonism of nature full circle. Cox defines an antagonism as a “recognition of the limit of an idea, a widely shared viewpoint, or ideology…[that] creates an opening for alternative voices and ideas to redefine what is appropriate, wise, or ethical…” There are those fighting for the right of the wetlands to exist both in Ontario and in North Carolina, there are those who are almost forced to sell their wild lands for development because they need the money, there are those fighting vocally at town meetings and protesting on the beach, and there are Amy and her father shepherding migratory geese to their natural wintering ground. The developer in North Carolina is interviewed saying “This is the realization of a lifelong dream for me. I have men and machinery committed. I can’t walk away just for a bunch of ducks. Geese. Whatever.” This is contrasted with the awe on Amy’s face when the geese hatch and the joy that the activists show on the beach in North Carolina when they finally touch down. The human connection to nature, the sublime feeling one gets in the wilderness, and the peace that John Muir describes as the feeling of going home, are all evident in contrast to the economic drive to raze the natural areas in the film.
With stunning filmography from beginning to end, and perfectly-timed aid from the soundtrack, the sublime awe at nature extends to the audience as well. The environmental themes manifest themselves throughout, and are discernable by young and old alike. Whether it is a child’s first encounter with the symbol of the bright yellow bulldozer or a parent’s revisited love of wild animals, this is a beautiful film championing family and conservation. While some environmental themes are only touched upon broadly, they are addressed tactfully so that a kid will understand the general context, but also, maybe more importantly, remember the way that they felt as they watch the geese, and Amy, grow up to take on the other side. Fly Away Home functions as a significant piece of environmental communication because of its ability to direct the attention of younger and older audiences alike to the plight of habitat destruction. Even though the film debuted in 1996, it is still relevant today. We are facing more habitat destruction than ever, activist groups are always advocating for environmental health, and childhood and family struggles will always lead us to research parenting methods. Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin are the perfect actors to play the two flawed main characters and though there is few dialogue by some standards, the sentiment is clear from their interactions and their passion. It’s all for the geese.

-I can’t find my way without you.
-Yes, you can. Because you’re like your mother. She was brave, you know. She went off, followed her dream. Nobody helped her. You have that strength in you too.
-I wish she was here now.
-She is. She’s right next to you. She’s in the geese. She’s in the sky. She’s all around you. She won’t let you down.
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