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October Sky
USA 1999
Directed by Joe Johnston
Running time 108 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Sentimentality is usually a detrimental quality where films are concerned but writer Lewis Colick and Joe Johnston’s story about a bright young hillbilly (Jake Gyllenhaal) from Coalwood, a coalmining town in the Appalachian backwoods of West Viriginia, handles it with such verve as to be irresistible.

Based on Homer Hickham’s autobiographical book about how he and his three friends (Chris Owen, William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg), inspired by the launch of Sputnik on October 5, 1957, built their own rocket and went on to win a national science competition, October Sky (the title is a clever anagram of  “Rocket Boys” the title of Hickham’s book) is far from subtle in its emotional manipulations as it goes for a double whammy of tried-and-true zero-to-hero triumphalism and estranged father-son rapprochement with a side-serving of embattled women fighting patriarchal authoritarianism.

Jake Gyllenhaal, yet to make his in breakout appearance in Donnie Darko (2001), gives a movingly empathetic performance as the determined teenager caught in a Oedipal battle with his father (an equally strong appearance by Chris Cooper) a company man who wants Homer to follow him down the mine. Adding to the mix is Laura Dern as his feistily supportive teacher who has dedicated her life to her students and Natalie Canerday as his sympathetic mother, clearly the source of Homer’s non-conformist streak, who must mollify her husband's hard-line tendencies.

Although the mechanics of the actual building of the rocket(s) are glossed over and at times plot developments are too subsumed by Hollywood simplifications, the strength of the film is in the well-drawn characters and their relationship and the credibility with which the core theme of the film, a belief in the human potential for self-betterment, is realized.  Added to this despite the at-times televisual tone of the film it is a  well-realized production with a convincing sense of time and place. Sentimentalism aside, the only criticism to be made is with respect to the over-use of  the pop music hits of the day, which give the film a manufactured "teen movie" quality which is feels incongruous.

Available from: Shock Entertainment

 

 

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