Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.
Notable for being one of John Travolta’s early screen credits, this 1976 film also stars Robert Reed and Diane Hyland as the parents of an immunity deficient child. Born without a functional immune system, Tod Lubitch (Travolta) lives his life inside a plastic world. It all seems pretty much fine until he turns 17 and notices the neighbor girl in a bikini. Thus begins Tod’s odyssey to move his plastic bubble to high school, create a mobile one and, ultimately, join the world without protection.
It’s definitely maudlin at times.
As a straightforward drama, it fails at its primary goal: getting the audience to cheer for Tod’s as his relationship with neighbor girl Gina moves forward. Its very premise seems to run counter to the more traditional teen love story it aches to become. And though it is The Boy in the Plastic Bubble‘s primary fault, that tension makes it an interesting curio.
The film is loosely based on the lives of David Vetter and Ted DeVita; boys born without working immune systems and TV news magazine curiosities in the 1970s. Sadly, their stories do not end as happily as Tod’s does — more on that later. Vetter would also lodge a complaint at the depiction of the space suit Tod wears late in the film in order to attend high school with Gina. Both boys briefly used suits connected to their hospital rooms, but never found the freedom or mobility Tod’s suit appeared to offer in the film. Despite Vetter’s complaint, the film does attempt to address the issue thoughtfully.
So if The Boy in the Plastic Bubble has a serious theme and intent to it, what makes it cheesy and watchable? Its 1970s earnestness. Though the film can be seen as a cynical appropriation of Vetter and DeVita’s lives, every one involved in the production is dedicated to this strange story. Reed, famous for The Brady Bunch, was a consummate actor and always hungry for the sort of high quality drama television delivered in the 1950s. This comes closer to his ideal and you can see it in his performance. Though it may seem a lot like Mike Brady, he manages to shade the character with the pain and concern of a man who cannot touch his only son. Hyland is similarly devoted in her role.
And then there’s Travolta. Already a Sweathog on Welcome Back, Kotter, he brings a lot of Vinnie Barbarino’s charm to Tod. In fact, it’s fair to say he makes the film far more palatable just by being in it. He’s also dedicated to the role and occasionally makes choices that are, on their face, embarrassing as Tod flails about in a fit and gives in to childish petulance. Those choices would be more successful if the film was willing to examine the stunted emotional development the character might experience from being unable to touch anyone.
Back in the romance plot, Glynnis O’Connor assists Travolta amiably enough as Gina. At the script level, she is allowed to be as inconsistent as a 17-year-old girl might be in the situation and O’Connor’s performance backs that up. In fact, it is surprising she never became a lead on a series following the film. Instead, she went on to career full of TV movies and a recurring role on Law & Order.
Stylistically, the film, made for television, looks and behaves much like an ABC Afterschool Special. Which, thirty-five years on, adds to its odd charm. Despite being shot in various Los Angeles locations, the film feels set-bound. The lighting is rarely inventive and the editing will be familiar to anyone who ever caught an episode of Mannix on TV Land. But again, it feels familiar and welcoming even as it is relentlessly pedestrian; almost like a soft rock album of the era on vinyl. Oddly enough, director Randal Kleiser would go on to adapt that brightly-lit familiar style in his most cherished work, Grease.
Oh! But the ending! So, once Gina tells Tod that she’s been accepted to an art school thanks to his tutoring, he decides he can stay inside his bubble no longer and walks out; finding her riding her horse. They kiss and ride into the canyons as Paul Williams’ “What Would They Say” plays on the soundtrack. As the Rifftrax commentary notes, Tod’s contact with the horse should lead immediately to his death. DeVita would pass in 1980 with Vetter succumbing to complications of his condition in 1984. But hey, people like happy endings, right? And, maybe above all else, that shockingly dishonest ending makes the film a triumph of cheesiness. For all its dedication to the premise, it still slaps you in the face with sunshine because the producers or network believed audiences could not handle Tod dying.
And to put this in context, protagonists were known to die in TV movies.
The film is currently available on Amazon Prime with the Rifftrax commentary included. Honestly, it’s the best way to approach the film unless you had the misfortune of witnessing it unriffed on cable in the 1990s. Not that this author is suggesting such a thing happened to him, but the sight of Travolta in a red space suit without context was certainly jarring.