A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Radio Flyer is a 1992 coming-of-age fantasy-drama. To illustrate the importance of keeping promises, the narrator (Tom Hanks) tells his kids of his upbringing, and specifically a time when his younger brother was the victim of physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather. If the beatings themselves aren't shown -- although one early scene shows the stepfather slapping the boy hard during a fishing trip -- the bruises are shown. The boy begs his older brother to keep the abuse a secret. The mother is too busy trying to make a living as a diner waitress to know what's happening until the situation becomes so bad that the stepfather is sent to jail. When he's released, he makes a tear-filled apology to the mother, begging her to take him back. Their dog attacks the stepfather and is later shown in the alley behind their house bloodied and left for dead by the stepfather. The kids are also bullied by tweens in the neighborhood. The older brother kicks one of the bullies in the crotch. The bullies later rough up the older brother under the guise of football. Occasional profanity including "s--t" and the beginning of the word "f--k." Potty humor involving dog flatulence.
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What's the story?
In RADIO FLYER, to prove to his kids that promises do have meaning, Mike (Tom Hanks) tells them of his childhood. In 1969, young Mike (Elijah Wood) and his younger brother Bobby drive across country and move to a new town with their mother (Lorraine Bracco) and German Shepherd. Upon arriving in the new town, their mother meets and soon marries a man who insists on being called "The King." Soon, "The King" is shown to be an alcoholic who is physically and verbally abusive to Bobby. Bobby makes Mike promise not to tell their mother about the beatings. Meanwhile, the kids go on the kinds of adventures that are seen by Mike to be the real magic of childhood, a magic that goes away when puberty happens. There's a legend in the neighborhood of a boy in the '50s who rode his bike down a steep hill and up and off a ramp and lived to tell about it. The hill is now named after that boy. The boys think they are freed of their horrible stepfather when their mother finally sees what's happening and "The King" is sent to jail. But when "The King" gets out of jail early and tearfully begs their mother to take him back, she agrees, and the cycle of abuse is now even worse. Inspired by the legend of the boy on the bike, the boys decide to turn their Radio Flyer wagon into a makeshift airplane. Billy promises to send postcards to Mike and their mother from each new city he visits around the world. Now the boys must find a way to get the wagon to the top of the hill and ready for take-off before "The King," the police, and their mother try to stop it.
Is it any good?
This movie raises many questions and leaves quite a few unanswered. What really happened to a young boy who is told to have escaped an abusive and alcoholic stepfather by flying away on a little red wagon converted into an airplane? Is the father who is telling this story of his upbringing to his kids sugarcoating the ending to spare them a harsh reality he has otherwise not avoided in the telling? Is the ending a cop-out hiding under the guise of magical realism? Is it acceptable for a movie to suggest that a boy can escape child abuse by hurtling down a hill in a wagon with parts MacGyvered into making the wagon a flying machine?
Even as a movie set in a time before there was the understanding of the cycles of abuse, secrecy, and denial that are now commonly known to be impediments to getting help for those who are victims of domestic abuse, and a time when the law was more hands-off in these matters, Radio Flyer fails in trying to meld a coming-of-age story that mixes harsh reality and blind-faith magic. And using "promises mean something" as a moral to a story in which an older brother keeps his promise to his younger brother not to tell their mother that he's getting beaten by his stepfather, while certainly plausible in the situation outlined in the movie, seems like a lousy way and example to teach that lesson.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Radio Flyer handled the issue of child abuse. Was the movie too graphic, or not graphic enough, in its depiction of a young boy being beaten by an alcoholic stepfather?
This movie is mostly set in the year 1969. How has our society changed and evolved in regard to how domestic and child abuse, and the abusers, are treated?
What should you do if you or someone you know is being abused?
- In theaters: February 21, 1992
- On DVD or streaming: October 12, 2004
- Cast: Tom Hanks, Elijah Wood, Lorraine Bracco
- Director: Richard Donner
- Studio: Columbia Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Middle School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 114 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: Theme (child abuse) and violence.
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