Anyone offering a plot synopsis of “Fly Away” runs the risk of making writer-director Janet Grillo’s debut feature sound like dozens of similarly themed made-for-TV tearjerkers. So it will behoove any venturesome distrib that picks up this indie drama to find a way of playing up the pic’s distinguishing strengths: exceptional performances by two femme leads and sensitive but unsentimental storytelling throughout. Even that may not be enough to completely dispel been-there-seen-that resistance by potential ticketbuyers, but favorable reviews and word of mouth could eventually boost viewership in ancillary streams.

With minimal reliance on cliches and contrivances, Grillo focuses on a turning point in the evolving relationship between Jeanne (Beth Broderick), a loving but stressed single mother, and Mandy (Ashley Rickards), her autistic teenage daughter.

Jeanne has devoted years to attentively caring for Mandy more or less on her own. Indeed, the pic strongly hints that her marriage to Peter (J.R. Bourne), Mandy’s father, may have broken up years earlier because of her refusal to have the girl institutionalized.

At 15, however, Mandy is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Although she attends a public school with a program for mainstreaming special-needs children, she faces expulsion because of her sporadic fits and violent outbursts. Jeanne, who works out of her home as a freelance financial consultant, desperately tries to balance her roles as mother and breadwinner. But her work is suffering and her nerves are fraying.

“Fly Away” benefits greatly from Grillo’s low-key, matter-of-fact depiction of day-to-day details in her characters’ lives. Whether Jeanne is cheerfully preparing Mandy for school, or calming her daughter as the girl screams and screeches her way through yet another anxiety attack, many scenes have a documentary-like flavor.

Pic has an understated, lived-in quality that makes each sudden disruption all the more powerful. At one point, Jeanne skeptically rebuffs the romantic overtures of a well-intentioned neighbor (engagingly played by Greg Germann). Her brutally blunt-spoken rejection of what she interprets as his pity is unexpectedly unsettling — suggesting that, for all her genuine selflessness, Jeanne can barely suppress a furious rage at her lot in life.

Here and elsewhere, Broderick subtly expresses diverse and sometimes contradictory emotions, effectively playing Jeanne as a loving parent who’s beginning to buckle under the weight of a near-impossible burden. As Mandy, Rickards is so compellingly persuasive in her unpredictability, some auds may wonder if she actually is autistic. (For the record: She isn’t.) Both individually and in tandem, the actresses consistently impress with their precise acting choices.

Sandra Valde-Hansen’s fluid lensing suitably enhances the sense of intimacy Grillo and her players achieve.

Fly Away

  • Production: A Cricket Films production. Produced by Janet Grillo, Pavlina Hatoupis. Executive producers, Catherine Hardwicke, Lee Adhemar G. Feldshon, David F. Schwartz. Directed, written by Janet Grillo.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Sandra Valde-Hansen; editor, Danny Daneau; music, Luke Rothschild, String Theory; production designer, Katie Byron; costume designer, Trayce Gigi Field; sound, Matthew Sanchez; associate producers, John Yonover, Matthew L. Henderson, Katie Byron; assistant director, Henderson; casting, Erin Toner. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 17, 2011. Running time: 80 MIN.
  • With: With: Beth Broderick, Ashley Rickards, Greg Germann, J.R. Bourne, Reno.
  • Music By: