October Sky (1999)

Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Lewis Colick, based on the novel Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickham, Jr.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, Laura Dern, William Lee Scott

My Advice: Wait and Rent It.

Welcome to 1957.  We're in Coalwood, a West Virginia mining town that's about three steps away from being blown away by the next gust of strong wind.  Four young men who are destined to go work in the mines have their lives altered completely when one of them, Homer (Gyllenhaal), is inspired by the Sputnik launch to go into amateur rocketry.  They try to use their hobby to get them out of their one horse town much to the dismay of Homer's father (Cooper) and the delight of their high school teacher (Dern).  This is based on a true story.

What a film such as this has going for it is that it's hard to screw up such an inspiring tale.  Overcoming hardship, family difficulties, and the opinions of others to become what you want, come hell or highwater, is always a storyline that will stir an audience.  And for the most part, this film does just that.  When the four boys are together, goofing off and firing off potentially lethal rockets, the film is a joy.  Gyllenhaal, Owen, Scott, and Chad Lindberg all work very well as a group and the way they band together to start blowing things up is wonderful.

However, when the film goes into ubertrite territory, it stumbles.  The scenes between Homer and his father are well acted, especially on the part of Chris Cooper.  But we've seen this father/son conflict so many times that you have to bring something new to the fore to keep it from going sour.  This film doesn't.  At least when Van Der Beek drawled "Ah doan wont yore lahf" to his cinema father in Varsity Blues, you at least got a nice chuckle out of it.  If you want to see this conflict done beautifully, go rent Shine.  Otherwise, you wish they'd hurry up and shoot off some more rockets.  Natalie Canerday as Elsie Hickam, Homer's long-suffering mother, plays these scenes well.  A scene where some of her painting is damaged is very well understated, but almost to the point where if you blink you'll miss it.

Also annoying is the throwaway love interest/conflict bit as Homer must decide between the popular Dorothy (Courtney Fendley) and the non-character Valentina (Kailie Hollister).  Valentina shows up out of nowhere so suddenly that I could hear other people in the audience asking their friends, "What was her name?"  This subplot could not have been anymore unnecessary or transparent. 

Like I said, it's good for inspiring, good to make you all misty-eyed and it's commendable for making trigonometry more enticing than football but it's unfortunately a bit on the contrived side and therefore good for watching while you're sprawled on your couch.

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