‘The Secret Art of Human Flight’ Review: A Grieving Man Spreads His Wings in H.P Mendoza’s (Not Too) Quirky Fable

When we meet Ben Grady (Grant Rosenmeyer), he can barely lift himself out of the living room chair. By the end of this lo-fi indie drama, he’s soaring among the clouds like some kind of schlubby superhero — or one of those kids from “Chronicle” — having mastered what “The Secret Art of Human Flight” calls … well, you heard the title. Maybe not “mastered” exactly, but Ben’s finally getting the hang of it, and that’s exhilarating, since flying couldn’t be farther from the state we found him in earlier, wallowing in melancholy after the unexpected death of his wife Sarah (Reina Hardesty).

As presented by director H.P. Mendoza, Ben and Sarah were practically the cutest couple you could imagine. They published children’s books together and made video diaries for their followers on TikTok, which Ben insisted they turn into a kind of insurance policy so that each spouse would have something to watch after the other one passed away. Sarah played along, to a point, though neither party was prepared for her to die all of a sudden at age 31. Now Ben is left with his grief, a hard drive full of videos and not much idea how to move on in his life … until he decides that teaching himself to fly will be his path to healing.

That’s where Jesse Orenshein’s slightly eccentric script comes in. He’s written the kind of movie you can imagine Michel Gondry wanting to direct, and there’s a certain relief in knowing that Mendoza (the queer Filipino filmmaker who co-wrote the adorbs “Colma: The Musical”) holds the reins instead. That means it can’t veer too far into twee-town, although it does come close at times, as when Ben paints his room sky blue and hangs foam clouds from the walls and ceiling.

At the beginning of the film, however, he’s still deep in depression. Neither his sister (Lucy DeVito) nor her husband (Nican Robinson) can get through to him. A police detective (Rosa Arredondo) insinuates that Ben may be a suspect in Sarah’s death, which doesn’t help one bit. Mendoza observes Ben sitting on the toilet, looking like world’s saddest hipster, when he stumbles across a video online of a man stepping off a cliff, only to go shooting up in the air. Ben is intrigued.

Around the same time, he meets a nice woman named Wendy (Maggie Grace, like helium in this heavy ballon) who’s got grief issues as well. She advises him to “find something and see it through.” Flashbacks delivered via Ben’s home-video collection reveal that being married to Sarah wasn’t necessarily as ideal as the movie first led us to believe. The poor guy has a problem with endings, as taped arguments with Sarah remind (she was radiant and spontaneous, whereas he had a tendency to punch holes in her ideas). Ergo, Ben decides to make flying his thing.

He goes digging into the darker corners of the web to find the dude he saw in that video, then orders his (not inexpensive) guide. The book arrives, and Ben starts to follow the steps, hauling all of his furniture out onto a pile in the front yard in one big purge, shaving off his (not inconsiderable) body hair and sleeping on the roof. As Ben prepares his mind for flight, a kind of guru named Mealworm (Paul Raci, looking like a less-stable version of his Oscar-nominated “Sound of Metal” character) appears. Ben spots his (not inconspicuous) Winnebago parked down the street and invites this weirdo inside.

It’s about here that “The Secret Art of Human Flight” runs a very real risk of short-circuiting under its own quirkiness, à la “Strawberry Mansion” or “Swiss Army Man” — although Mendoza (who finds the right tone by composing the score himself) comes to the project from a place of emotional sincerity. He keeps the film grounded in Ben’s unresolved feelings of loss, and though the kooky mystery of how the whole human flight thing will play out hovers over the movie, the real engine remains Ben’s personal recovery.

In that way, the closest model could well be Pixar’s “Up,” which similarly found a widower letting go of terra firma as a way of honoring his late wife’s wishes. Mendoza’s movie is much shaggier all around, but it’s got that gooey Velveeta-and-cornball center that Pixar and precious few others manage to pull off. The film itself is presented in a most peculiar format, its round-cornered 4:3 aspect ratio interrupted at regular intervals by an assortment of other videos, stitched together in a rather ungainly fashion (Mendoza handled editing duties as well, going a little wild in that department). It should feel as if Ben is working toward a state of clarity or enlightenment, but instead, both he and the movie have their head in the clouds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *