This made-for-television film from 1976 tells the story of Tod Lubitch (played by a pre-Saturday Night Fever John Travolta). Tod was born without an immune system and, as a result, he’s had to spend his entire life in a germ-free, plastic bubble. When Tod was a child, it wasn’t such a big deal not being able to leave his house without getting in a plastic ark beforehand. But now, he’s in his teens and he wants to do teenager stuff. His parents (Robert Reed and Diana Hyland) are overprotective. His doctor (Ralph Bellamy) says that there’s little chance that Tod’s condition will ever improve. But the girl next door, Gina (Glynnis O’Connor), finds herself falling in love with Tod and she wants to help him live a normal life. Gina loves to ride horses and Tod wants to ride one with her. As we all know, horses are totally germ-free.
The Boy In The Plastic Bubble is one of those movies that has a reputation. It’s usually cited as being the epitome of 70s schmaltz and, indeed, it is very 70s and it is very schmaltzy. It’s one of those films where the big dramatic moments are so overdone that they instead often become kind of comedic. When Tod finally convinces his parents to allow him to attend school, he does so while wearing a special protective outfit that makes him look like a cross between an old school astronaut and a demented teddy bear. When it looks like his suit might be malfunctioning, he runs into the plastic cell that’s been set up in the back of the classroom and strips it off while all of his classmates watch. Everyone’s truly impressed by both Tod’s positivity and the sight of a 22 year-old John Travolta rolling around in gym shorts.
Indeed, while watching the film, it’s impossible not to ask certain questions. In what world, for instance, could Robert Reed, best known for playing the patriarch on The Brady Bunch, be John Travolta’s father? Why is there such a weird tension between Tod and his mother? (It may have had something to do with the fact that Travolta was dating Diana Hyland at the time.) How does Tod keep his hair so perfect while living in a plastic bubble? Did anyone think that the scene where Tod is carried onto the beach inside a plastic box would be so odd to watch? Reportedly, The Boy In The Plastic Bubble was based on the lives of two young men who has the same condition as Tod. According to Wikipedia, one of them was very amused by the idea the Todd’s protective outfit would keep him safe at school. And, then of course, there’s the film’s ending, which tries to offer a ray of hope but instead leaves you convinced that Tod is going to die at any minute.
And yet, for all the obvious flaws, The Boy In The Plastic Bubble is slightly redeemed by the sincerity that Travolta and O’Connor bring to their roles. In particular, Travolta brings a smoldering anger to his role, which may not have been present in the script but which feels appropriate for the character. As played by Travolta, Tod may understand why he’s in the bubble but he’s still pissed off about it. O’Connor has an even more difficult role to play because Gina’s actions often don’t make a lot of sense. But O’Connor makes you believe that she’s sincere in her desire to give the Bubble Boy the high school experience that he deserves. It’s a schmaltzy film but Travolta and O’Connor bring a few moments of emotional honesty to it.
Director Randal Kleiser later worked with John Travolta on Grease. I don’t think Danny Zuko would have been a good influence on the Boy in the Plastic Bubble.