In 1986’s Flight Of The Navigator, 12 year old David Freeman disappears for a number of years, with nobody knowing what his fate is, or his whereabouts. The actor who played David in the film – Joey Cramer – similarly did a vanishing act, having dropped out of the public gaze after its cinematic release; in Joey’s case, however, his own re-emergence took a whole lot longer, and has been far more harrowing.
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Filmmaker Lisa Downs’ fascination with the icons of her own childhood led her to make the documentary Life After Flash, in which she gave herself the challenge of learning just what happened to the star of 1980’s Flash Gordon – Sam J. Jones – in the following decades. Downs delivered a feature which was not just a moving love letter to a movie which had meant so much to her throughout her formative years, but also told the stirring tale of a person finding a new purpose and path in life, and embracing everything from their past, instead of trying to ignore or run away from it.
Downs’ piece seemed to have struck a real chord with fans of Flash Gordon, and after originally being available via DVD and Blu-ray as well as VOD, it was deservedly included as a part of the recent 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of the camp cult hit movie. It appears there are many more similar stories to be told, and so Downs set about making her follow-up, to uncover whatever happened to Joey Cramer, as well as being a celebration of Flight Of The Navigator. Like her debut, she went down a similar path of crowdfunding, with fans giving their financial backing to get the project made.
As with Life After Flash, Downs devotes part of the running time to catching up with both actors and crew from the film, giving a deeper insight into the creative process of just what went into making Flight Of The Navigator in the first place. She has managed to enlist contributions from virtually all of the talent from in front of the camera, with the only people of note who are absent being Paul Reubens and Sarah Jessica Parker; however, the documentary has been put together so skilfully that the end product does not suffer from their lack of involvement, which is a great testament to Downs.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray released by Second Sight Films in 2019 did put together a reasonable selection of additional features to accompany Flight Of The Navigator, but what it so keenly lacked was a proper ‘making of’; just like Life After Flash accomplished in relation to earlier, lacklustre releases of Flash Gordon on home media, Life After The Navigator is a standalone film which manages to perfectly fill that exact same gap, delivering an insightful look behind the scenes of the movie, with such rare treats as a young Chris O’Donnell’s original screen test as David.
Interspersed throughout all this is the real core of the piece: the story of what actually happened with Joey Cramer after leaving the Trimaxion Drone Ship behind him. You may just think Cramer had drifted away from acting, or that the roles had perhaps simply dried up when making the transition to becoming an adult actor, something which has happened to many other child stars; the truth, however, is nothing quite so mundane or simple, and is a truly heart-rending tale of a troubled childhood, with an emotionally – and physically – distant father, a struggle with substance abuse, and later a descent into crime.
It would be easy to paint Cramer as being yet another victim of the Hollywood studio system, a child actor being chewed up and spat out when they were no longer seen as bankable, with little or no regard for their wellbeing afterwards. While there is certainly an element of this in what took place with Cramer, his background also had a significant part to play in how things unfolded, and some of the stories which he tells during the documentary are enough to almost reduce you to tears, especially when relating one harrowing experience he had with his father.
Like her approach when relating Sam J. Jones’ own tale in Life After Flash, Downs allows Cramer to have complete freedom to give a brutally honest and unflinching look at his life, here opening up to the camera – as well as to himself – while he is going through various stages of rehabilitation after his latest stint in jail, and looking to get things back on track. We get to understand Cramer is not a bad person, and that while he has made some decidedly poor choices in the past, he is intent on getting clean and returning to acting; by the end, you cannot help but root for him, as well as admiring his total candour in examining his own very human flaws and failings.
Amongst the sadness, there is also plenty of joy to be felt as well, and you see Cramer coming to terms with his past and growing from all of those experiences, forging a future both for himself and his young daughter also; becoming a parent has helped him to make peace with his past, and understand some of the struggles his own father faced. It would appear that Downs had entered Cramer’s life at a crucial phase, and all his self-reflection and introspection as part of the filming may have helped with his path to personal redemption; if so, then we owe Downs a great debt of gratitude.
As if the finished documentary itself were not enough of an impressive accomplishment, alongside this we also have a full slate of extra material which would put most releases of big studio blockbusters to shame. As well as unseen footage and extended interviews, we also get to see Cramer’s acting turn as the lead in a short, low-budget film from 1988 called The Invasion; it all helps demonstrate the obvious care and attention Downs puts into not only delivering a superb main feature, but also ensuring that the whole package proves to be of outstanding quality.
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During the film, we learn that Cramer also had an uncredited minor role in another beloved ‘80s childhood classic movie, The NeverEnding Story; it seems apt Downs’ next project in the pipeline is Life After Atreyu, focusing on the child star of that film, Noah Hathaway. Downs has hit on a format which has a lot of potential longevity, helping to scratch a nostalgic itch while at the same time giving an intelligent, thoughtful look at the sometimes stark and harsh reality sitting behind the glamorous facade of movie stardom.
Life After The Navigator is a touching and deeply affecting portrait of one such actor whose personal and professional trajectory went adrift. Much like his character of David, Joey Cramer has needed to chart his own course back home; here, the journey has ultimately proved to be as important as the destination.