R101 The Boy in the Plastic Bubble

(1976, Drama/Romance/Teen/Television, color)


Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy

You can be sure that under that suit, he’s wearing disturbingly tiny shorts.

Rating: ***1/2

In a Nutshell:

Born without immunities, Tod grows up in a tiny sterile room.


He's practicing for the Phenomenon poster.Born without immunities, Tod Lubitch spends his first few years of life in a large sterile terrarium at the local hospital. Jealous of her neighbors’ toddler girl, Mrs. Lubitch (Diana Hyland) prevails upon Mr. Lubitch (Robert Reed) to prevail upon Tod’s doctor (Ralph Bellamy) to let them bring him home. They do so, terrarium and all, amid a media circus. Later, Tod interrupts their celebratory foreplay by choking on his teddy bear’s eye. He survives this incident to become John Travolta at age sixteen.

Teen Tod doesn’t feel confined. He likes sitting behind his plastic wall while his parents, doctors and nurses cater to his every whim. In fact, any suggestion of a possible cure provokes pouting, provoking a scolding tirade from his doctor. Meanwhile the neighbor’s toddler girl has grown into a shapely young woman (Glynnis O’Connor as Gina Biggs) who rides her horse within sight of Todd’s window. Her parents convince her to invite Tod to a beach party on the fourth of July. Inspired by her bikini, Tod accepts.

At the party, fellow teens offer Gina two dollars to hold Tod’s hand. She does so, then explains that it was a prank, provoking a tantrum from Tod. Feeling guilty, she later offers to ferry homework and books to and from school for him. Mr. Lubitch forgives her, and eventually Tod does too.

The Boy in the Embarrassing Tam O'Shanter.Tod gradually falls in love with Gina. In order to be near her, He talks his doctor and father into providing him with a pressurized suit so he can go to school in person. The other kids look at him strangely, but accept him readily enough, despite his inability to relate to people. (This section includes my favorite part of the movie: Tod’s classmates express regret that they cannot share their marijuana, but he brushes their apologies aside and demonstrates his ability to get high through sheer force of will.) In an effort to impress Gina, he challenges the local jock to a push-up contest. He wins, but uses up his air filter’s battery in the process and has to be carried back to his filtered box at the back of the classroom.

Gina’s furious when she drops off his homework that night. How dare he put his life in danger trying to impress her? What if he died? She’d never be able to live with herself. She storms out, but Tod catches her just as she walks through her front door with a carefully timed call. She agrees to go to the beach with him the next day. By the next evening, she admits she loves him too.

Tod graduates, and under his tutelage, Gina graduates too. She’s accepted to art school in New York. Tod summons his doctor. What would happen if he just left his sterile environment one day? His doctor says that he’d probably die of the first virus he came in contact with. But is there a chance he’d survive? Yes, the doctor admits. There is a slim chance that his nascent immune system would adapt and thrive, but the doctor warns him against leaving. The next day, before his parents are awake, Tod leaves anyway. He goes next door and surprises Gina, who gives him a ride on her horse.


The Boy in the Full-Body Oven Mitt.The penultimate scene assures us that Tod’s chances of survival are slim, but the closing credits roll before any consequences can consequent, which means the ending wants us to call it happy. Still, it’s hard not remember that the real bubble boy’s story ended pretty much the only way a story about a kid with no immune system could have ended.

The movie itself is pure Seventies made-for-TV cheese. If you’ve ever seen one of these before, you know what I’m talking about—generically written, broadly acted, tender piano score, unsubtle yet non-specific moral message, etc., etc. It is, perhaps, one of the better Seventies-TV-cheeses I’ve sampled, but that’s dubious praise. Think of it as cinematic bologna. It could be the best bologna in the world, but I’d still rather have bacon.

As a genre, it’s ripe for riffing, though. A few favorite comments: When Gina asks Tod when he’s going to get out, Bill replies, “I’m sticking with the lifestyle; it’s the only way to trump my vegan friends.” As Tod climbs through his room’s oddly configured interior, Mike notes, “The mousehole door makes him feel more human.” When Gina chews him out for nearly killing himself showing off, Kevin adds, “Your death would have sucked for me.” Scientology, Battlefield Earth and Old Dogs jokes abound, and the final scene, where Travolta emerges in a flowing peasant shirt to feel up trees while Paul Williams warbles in the background, is priceless. With the commentary, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble stays enjoyably funny all the way through.