In many ways, "October Sky" is exactly the sort of Hollywood picture we need to see more often: cleanly written, capably filmed, and focused on a young person who's determined to turn his life in constructive, creative directions.
But movies are complicated beasts, and to leave the review at that would be to overlook shortcomings that weaken the film's value. When all the evidence is considered, the verdict on "October Sky" has to be more a mixed recommendation than an unqualified rave.
The time is the 1950s, and the hero is Homer Hickam, a teenage boy growing up in the aptly named West Virginia town of Coalwood, where the chosen destiny of nearly all males is to finish as much of high school as seems convenient and then head straight to the local mine for a lifetime of picking, shoveling, and inhaling mineral dust.
That was good enough for Homer's father, who rose to the rank of superintendent and expects his son to follow a similar path. But a couple of factors are snarling this neat scenario. One is the changing nature of Coalwood's mining industry, hit with labor unrest and signs that the mine's yield is diminishing.
The other is Homer's growing awareness that a mining life isn't for him, even if Coalwood's veins keep flourishing forever. Emulating his father's career doesn't seem like a sure-fire route to contentment, and more important, he has a passion of his own: rocketry, a growing and glamorous science that makes his head whirl with fantastic possibilities.
He's so eager to become a rocket scientist that he can't wait for the usual training, or four years of college, or even his parents' permission. Helped by like-minded friends and slightly bewildered grownups, he starts practicing his would-be profession in his backyard with results that range from almost comical to literally explosive.
Right down to its title, "October Sky" takes inspiration from the nights in 1957 when the Soviet satellite Sputnik first streaked through the heavens, during the boyhood of the real Homer Hickam, whose memoirs gave the movie its basic plot. Many viewers may feel a nostalgic shiver at the very mention of that history-changing time, when the complacency of the immediate postwar years gave way to both anxiety and excitement as the Space Age moved from science-fiction stories to newspaper headlines. The filmmakers ably capture this mixture of emotions as it affected ordinary people, who wondered what impact these events might have on their own quiet lives.
The movie is capably acted, too, most notably by Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper as Homer and his dad. Also noteworthy are Natalie Canerday as Homer's mom, William Lee Scott and Chad Lindberg as his closest friends, Chris Owen as a high-school science geek, and Laura Dern as a teacher who believes in Homer when others think his head has vanished entirely into the clouds.
One problem with "October Sky" is a weakness for clunky storytelling. The director, Joe Johnston, treats even the most heavy-handed patches of the screenplay as if they were subtle points that we might fail to notice if he didn't noisily hammer them home.
More serious is the movie's poorly thought-out conception of individuality, which is one of its main themes. Celebrating individualism is wonderful when it affirms the right of a young man like Homer to realize his dreams on his own terms. But it's not so appealing when it leads to cynical views of group activity and community action, as in the portrayal of Coalwood's mining union, which is viewed in insultingly simplistic and negative terms. Some may also question the movie's hero-worshiping treatment of Homer's role model, Werner von Braun, who's depicted as an all-American icon with no acknowledgment of his earlier career in Nazi Germany.
These oversimplified aspects of "October Sky" don't scuttle its worthwhile qualities, and many parents will cheer its clean and friendly approach. Here's hoping other filmmakers will follow its spirit, if not all of its methods.
*Rated PG; contains a little vulgarity. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org