October Sky (1999)
Directed by Joe Johnston
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg, Laura Dern, Natalie Canerday.
1999 108 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 20, 1999.
"October Sky," a film directed by Joe Johnston ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "Jumanji"), had a fair amount going against it. For one, Johnston previously had specialized in mostly special effects-laden productions; it's film studio was Universal, who recently released the painfully manipulative "Patch Adams," and the story, judging from the trailer, could have easily gone the same easy route into utter corniness. Fortunately, "October Sky" appears to have been written instead with a great deal of care by Lewis Colick, and therefore comes across as a realistic portrait of a certain moment in time. The film is based on a true story, by the way, and also unlike "Patch Adams," appears to have stayed very, very close to what actually happened, instead of taking noticable liberties in exchange for cheap, artificial melodrama.
Set in Coalwood, West Virginia, circa 1957, "October Sky" begins on the monumental day of Oct. 5 when Russia beat the Americans to space with their first satellite, called Sputnik. Homer Hickum (Jake Gyllenhaal), a teenager whose father (Chris Cooper), a stubborn coal mining supervisor in the town, clearly favors his older brother who has just gotten a football scholarship to college, knows that he was not meant to be a miner, and doesn't want anything to do with it. Soon, inspired by Sputnik, Homer acquires his two buddies (William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg) and the class brain, Quentin (Chris Owen), to begin to make small rockets. Their understanding and friendly school teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), encourages them to enter the state science fair because she truly believes in them, and Homer automatically sees this opportunity as a way to possibly get away from his ultimate dead-end existence as a coal miner (the winner of the state goes on to the country, and the person who takes first place gets a college scholarship).
Although "October Sky" follows a fairly predictable pattern, the film turned out to be first-rate, thanks to the delicate and innocent way that the story was told, and in the satisfying way that the characters were handled. The subplot involving Homer's stern father could have easily characterized him as a one-dimensional jerk, but instead, played terrifically by Chris Cooper, who also stood out in John Sayles' 1996 film, "Lone Star," we learn that he does care about his son, even if he has a difficult time showing it. Quite a few moments between father and son are finely-tuned and ring with a resounding truthfulness that you don't often see in mainstream films today. Also making an impression are Gyllenhaal, in his first major feature film role, who acts as our likable and sympathetic protagonist; Natalie Canerday, as Homer's loving mother who becomes torn between her feuding husband and son; and Laura Dern, radiant as always, in the relatively small, but touching role of Miss Riley, a young woman who sees teaching as a pointless means of work if she can't inspire and help her students get out of their nearly unavoidable destinies to become miners. It is ultimately in the exact performances and writing that are the primary reasons "October Sky" works so well.
If there is one subplot in the film that could have been dealt with in a more gratifying manner, it is that of Homer's crush on his older brother's girlfriend, and another girl who does like Homer, even though he mostly ignores her. This almost same exact situation was far more satisfying in the recent brilliant motion picture, "Rushmore." One slapstick-style sequence that seems out of place shows the four boys, early on, testing out their rockets, only to see them fail in some way; the way that the scene was filmed and edited together, played to the tune of a '50s song, didn't really seem to belong in the context of the rest of the film.
These, of course, are mostly insignificant criticisms when compared to the whole of the film, which is a rare film that does not short-change its characters or their plight in any way, nor does it trivialize them. In its surprisingly effective, subtle concluding moments when we find out the fates of all the characters, shown with home-movies of the real people the film was based on, I had realized that "October Sky" was made by a group of filmmakers and actors who cared deeply enough about the people and true accounts that the story was based upon that they in no way attempted to add a bunch of flashy extra stories that would make the film more accessible or commercial to a wider audience. Good for them.
©1999 by Dustin Putman