"Skyward," the NBC movie at 9 tonight on Channel 4, is one sweet piece of work, a lyrical heartwarmer about a girl in a wheelchair who learns how to fly.
Fourteen-year-old Suzy Gilstrap, herself a paraplegic since an accident three years ago, plays Julie Ward, a shy girl transfered to a new school when her parents move from St. Louis to Rockwall, Tex.There the girl finds release from spiritual and physical confinement when a crusty old flying instructor played by Bette Davis helps her earn a pilot's license, liberation from earthly bonds and a massive injection of self-respect.
The elements of formula are evident here, but attractively disguised by the performances, the novel locale, and spectacular, exhilarating aerial sequences directed by John Kuri. Young Ron Howard, the former "Happy Days" star who directed the film, did himself proud and shows promise of becoming an adroit, attentive storyteller.
Writer Nancy Sackett opens the film with a moving-day sequence, nicely montaged by Howard, before the Ward family arrives in Texas. There, daughter Julie is to be "mainstreamed" into a regular-classroom, but this process proves difficult for her, and she retreats into a shell that is only cracked when, in a beautifully composed scene, she sees two small airplaines whoosh out from behind a civic building.
This leads her to the town's grubby one-strip airport and to Howard Hesseman (of "WKRP"), top-flight as an amiably grizzled mechanic. The girl tells him she wants to fly because "I'm tired of looking up all the time."
The performance given by Davis is hardly a leap or a stretch, but Bette Davis can get away with just being Bette Davis now, and the way she refrains from trying to upstage the girl is commendable. Although the character is underwritten and played in relatively low profile, Davis is pretty magnetic barking out "Clear!" before taking off or giving Gilstrap a pair of goggles and a look of encouragement before her big, climactic solo flight.
Clu Gulager has little to do as the girl's preoccupied father, but Marion Ross (also of "Happy Days") proves there really is some talent and spirit underneath the sitcom exterior. Lisa Whelchel is breezily believable as Julie's sister and Scott Billings, as a boy who takes a shine to Julie, registers from moment one with a captivating natural charisma.
Howard may have been too deferential to Davis, but he must have done something right to encourage such a confident, appealing and enterprising performance from Gilstrap. She's able to communicate the injurious self-pity of the girl but also a poignant vulnerability. When the story drags during the first hour (between a brief teaser shot of Davis and her grand entrance into the plot), Gilstrap sustains interest on her own. She whirrs around in a motorized wheelchair like R2-D2 or looks longingly out the window at the sky or snuggles with her boyfriend at the school dance.
There are a few problems and, occasionally, a lack of needed detail, but "Skyward" proves that neither Family Fare nor tales of courage and uplift need necessarily be insipid television. This baby can fly.