One of the hardest things to capture on film is childhood wonder; even harder is childhood trauma. Radio Flyer earns points for trying earnestly to capture both, though the movie is only fitfully effective at meshing entertainment values with the knotty issue of child abuse.
The young screenwriter David Mickey Evans gives the semi-autobiographical story a startling urgency. Two boys — eleven-year-old Mike (Elijah Wood) and his eight-year-old brother, Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) — move from New Jersey to California in 1969 to start a new life with their divorced mother, Mary, compassionately played by Lorraine Bracco. Mary soon marries a man (Adam Baldwin) who calls himself the King. Things go well until the stepfather starts drinking and beating Bobby. Mike helps his brother hide the bruises because neither boy wants to ruin things for Mary, a waitress who’s mostly out working double shifts.
When the situation at home becomes intolerable, Mike and Bobby devise a plan: They will turn their wagon — a Radio Flyer — into a magic rocket that will carry Bobby to freedom. The adult Mike, given subtle nuances by Tom Hanks, who also supplies the narration, reminds us that we must see the fantastical plan from a child’s point of view. That’s a tough leap to make, given the literal direction of Richard Donner, who puts too much emphasis on the transformation of the wagon and too little on the frayed nerves of the boys. Donner excels at action (Superman, all three Lethal Weapons), but he lÃƒ?Ã…Â¸cks the childhood empathy of a Spielberg or a Truffaut. Despite the flaws, Evans’s thoughtful script and the unclichTd performances of Wood and Mazzello exert a powerful grip. The film stays with you.