E.T. is the best friend a little boy searching for a place to belong could have. As the middle child, Elliott often gets left out and undervalued, like when Michael and his friends are playing a roleplaying game at the kitchen table and only consent to let Elliott join if he has pizza. Additionally, Elliott's input is often ignored or not taken seriously, as witnessed in the dinner scene when Elliott insists that he saw something in the backyard. Michael mocks him, and his mother tries, politely, to tell him that he's full of it. Ouch, Mom.
On top of all that, Elliott's dad has abandoned the family. Double ouch, Dad. In short, this kid needs a pal, pronto. And that's when a wrinkled little alien botanist wanders into his backyard.
Little Squashy Guy to the Rescue
E.T. values Elliott in a way that the rest of his family doesn't. For starters, E.T. listens to him, even when he's going on and on about his pet fish. He also trusts and relies upon him. When it comes to all things communicator-related, E.T. basically puts his life in Elliott's hands. E.T. shares his plans with Elliott, counts on him for building materials, and trusts him to get both E.T. and the device to the forest.
That's a lot of responsibility, and responsibility is just one of the important life-lessons that E.T. teaches Elliott the way that a parent or guardian would. With just a single word—"Ouch"—he schools Elliott in compassion: first when Elliott cuts his finger on the saw blade and E.T. heals it, and later when E.T. must go and lets Elliott know that he recognizes the boy's emotional pain.
E.T.'s departure itself also teaches Elliott that, simply put, heartbreak's a part of life, kid, and E.T. handles it with a caring, protective touch (no pun intended), promising Elliott, "I'll be right here." We're not crying; we're cutting onions.
Me and My Extra-Terrestrial Shadow
E.T. is also someone with whom Elliott can identify. Elliott was abandoned by his father. Similarly, E.T. was abandoned by his community. When Gertie asks if E.T.'s a boy or a girl, Elliott confidently responds, "He's a boy," just like Elliott.
Director Steven Spielberg has said many times that he based E.T. on the friend he wished he had as a kid when his parents were divorcing. "He wanted to make a film about a 10-year-old boy who feels abandoned and, in classic storybook fashion, finds a friend who understands him," explains Salon's Charles Taylor.
E.T. not only totally "gets" Elliott, and vice versa, but also shares a bond with him that's both physical and psychic. When E.T.'s health begins declining, Elliott's does, too. When Michael expresses his concerns about E.T. to Elliott, telling him that E.T. "doesn't look too good anymore," Elliott dismisses it with, "Don't say that. We're fine." We're fine? Whoa. And we thought we were close with our BFF.
You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!
E.T. doesn't just fill a void in Elliott's life. Not by a long shot! He's also a catalyst for adventure and a celebration of Elliott's youth. It's Elliott's involvement with E.T. that sends him on expeditions into the forest and drops him into high-speed chases with Keys and his federal agents.
E.T.'s that friend who makes you gladly want to risk being grounded until you're forty, and Elliott's sense of awe, exploration, and discovery are all enhanced by his relationship with E.T. The most outstanding example of this is the first time that E.T. makes Elliott's bike fly, when Elliott's out long past his curfew. As they soar through the sky, Elliott laughs in disbelief, absolutely thrilled, looking at suburbia from an entirely new perspective.
E.T. isn't all flying bikes and day-drinking though. While E.T. helps Elliott tap into the best parts of being a kid, he also helps Elliott grow up. Several film critics have observed that E.T. has a great deal in common with Peter Pan, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Both E.T. and Peter take kids flying through the night sky, celebrate the best parts of kids being kids, and help those kids grow up.
There are even nods to Peter Pan within the film. Remember what book Mom reads to Gertie? Yup. Peter Pan. When Elliott fears that E.T. has died, he tells him, "I'll believe in you all my life, every day." That sure sounds a lot like what Wendy promises to Peter when she says, "I'll always believe in you, Peter Pan." When viewed as a sort of cosmic cousin to Peter Pan, E.T. kick-starts Elliott's road to maturity. In fact, Steven D. Greydanus at Decent Films suggests that E.T. actually represents Elliott's childhood itself—which is to say that Elliott has to let him go in order to grow up.
However you slice it, E.T. is closely connected to Elliott's youth, both in terms of the purity and unique perspective of a child, but also the need to ultimately mature and donate all of those stuffed animals in the closet to Goodwill.