October Sky is a rare oddity in cinema: a self-proclaimed “uplifting” film that is actually uplifting! Based on the autobiographical book by Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys, October Sky tells the struggle of four boys reaching for their dream.
It’s 1957, and for the boys of Coalwood, West Virginia, there’s not much hope of a rosy future. Coalwood is a coal mining town, and, except for the few lucky ones who manage to escape on a football scholarship, most of Coalwood’s boys are destined to work in the mine. But, in October 1957, an event happens that sparks one boy to dream. The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik sets Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) to dream a future of rocketry and space travel.
Of course, Homer’s parents (Chris Cooper and Natalie Canderday) aren’t quite sure what to make of their son’s unusual interests. Homer gets his strongest encouragement from Miss Riley (Laura Dern), a teacher in his school who also informs him about the scholarships offered to the winners of a national science fair.
And so, with stars in his eyes, and thoughts of scholarships in his head, Homer enlists the help of three other boys (William Lee Scott, Chad Lindberg and Chris Owen) and begins to build a rocket. But, do these four backwoods boys even have the slightest hope of escaping their destiny?
There is a lot that could have gone wrong with October Sky. Nearly every sequence flirts with becoming syrupy and cliched. However, miraculously, October Sky avoids nearly all of these pitfalls, making the exact right moves at the exact right times. A film emerges which manages to be powerful and moving without slipping into the gauzy haze of nostalgia or sliding down the sugarry slope of sappiness.
Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding as the kid at the center of this film. From the outset of the film, he is immediately likable, and never seems too corny or brainy as to alienate the audience. Unfortunately, while October Sky focuses on Homer, the other three kids get the short end of the stick. They remain little more than placeholders reading “insert friend here”.
Of the adults in the film, Chris Cooper is the most fully realized character. The film never paints him as merely the villainous parent standing in the way of his child’s dreams, but, instead, shows the multihued portrait of a man who wants the best for his family and town, but is too stubborn to realize what that is.
Director Joe Johnson deserves much credit for successfully navigating the many obstacles that October Sky manages to dodge. However, there are still a few occasions when he allows things to proceed just a step too far. Scenes which were natural and inspriring start to become contrived and artificial. However, these lapses are minimal, and Johnson quickly steers the movie back on course.
The problem with many so-called “uplifting” films is that they attempt to force their mediciney goodness down your throat. October Sky never resorts to that level, and yet, manages to become a truly uplifting film purely on its own merits.