Veteran actress Shelagh McLeod makes her feature directorial debut with ASTRONAUT, an entry in this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
ASTRONAUT is a drama starring one of the greatest actors of the last 45 years, Richard Dreyfuss, as Angus, an ailing senior citizen widower in love with the vastness of space. Soon after his daughter’s family moves in, he learns of a lottery being put on by a billionaire entrepreneur to send a regular citizen on the first public flight into space. He’s already too old for the requirements, but his grandson, Barney, urges him on to enter, but his age, the fact that winning the lottery to go on the trip, and his health issues causes him to decline.
Additionally, his daughter, Molly, thinks that the large house he shared with her mother should be sold at a lower price, but he’s not sure he wants to leave. With health issues, denial to sell the house, and other problems that come from having an elderly parent live with a young family, his son-in-law, Jim, makes the executive decision to place him into a home. As his early days in the home seem to suck more and more of his life away, he decides, in the last minutes of the lottery’s registration time, to enter.
Angus passes the hundreds of thousands of entrants before getting into the final 12 and finally lands in the top 3 that places him in the running to be voted on by the public. The other residents at “Sundown Valley” (real subtle, huh?) cheer on Angus while an overly logical (and maybe uninspired) Jim scolds him for lying to the competition despite Jim keeping some truths from his family as well. As the day draws near, he gains more and more support from his son-in-law and grandson.
Through struggles with health, loss, and a family secret that threaten the fabric of his daughter’s family, Angus finds himself useful to the space mission through his expertise as a geologist. What’s more, he reconciles with losing his wife and helps bring his daughter’s family closer before getting to finally achieve his lifelong aspiration to see the world from a new perspective.
As the son of two septuagenarian parents, there is a particular sadness I felt watching this movie. As someone who still thinks himself in his prime, to a particular extent, the early parts of this movie shows how fast life can move. You’re the virile leader of your family whose opinions were loud, clear, and necessary to the world around you. You were literally everything your young grandson believes you to be as a hero, someone of great wealth of knowledge, and inspirational. With each year that ticks by, your voice softens, your body betrays, your well of knowledge is no longer asked for, or, worse, also considered unwanted and potentially considered kooky before you’re left stripped of a lot of your dignity.
When he arrives at the senior home, he already feels unwanted by his family. The nurses have a strict schedule for meals when it doesn’t fit his own personal schedule, but that means little to nothing to the staff. He’s told to attend a sing along, even though he doesn’t sing. The woman who leads the sing along even ends her session by saying, “I will see some of you next week.” A constant reminder that their time is drawing ever near and they have no control over their own fate as they once did.
Angus also has a beautiful friendship with Len, played by Graham Greene. Len is wheelchair-bound and barely speaks. When Barney asked why he doesn’t talk, he’s told it’s because no one will listen to him anymore. It’s a wonderful comparison of how we view the old. You have the ones refusing to go silent. like Angus, and others who grow silent when everyone around them stop listening or needing them.
This is a sweet, at times sad, at times very funny, inspiring, and extremely well acted movie. There are common trappings of movies that deal with age/generation gaps or movies are meant to inspire the audience. His son-in-law thinks he is well past his prime. The youngest in the competition is overly self-assured and cocky. The grandson thinks he is a hero. These are things that play out with these types of movies focused on older leads. Overall, the movie is written to the standards expected for a little touching family drama like this.
The movie is competently shot and directed. McLeod is definitely not afraid to keep this on the sweet and inspirational side even if she has to tug at our heart strings a little bit or delve into a little more fantastical elements to deliver the story. I actually don’t fault her at all for this because this feels very personal like she is telling a story that means a great deal to her. Without a doubt, though, the strong performances and the reverence paid in particular to Dreyfuss and Greene elevates the material to an extremely high level.
A common scene transition that plays out as a theme in this movie concerns an object that is streaking across the sky. It’s representative of how we all would like to see our existence end and be remembered. We’re these luminous beings that traverse the vastness of space on our tiny little rock. In the end, we want to have our ends come in a spectacular show as we don’t simply fade, but we burn out brilliantly for all to see and cherish – no matter our age.
Almost everyone will go through the struggles of the characters in this movie. We all grow old. We all have to watch our loved ones grow old. This isn’t an easy experience for anyone. However, if this movie should teach anyone anything, it should be that we need to listen to our elders. They still have wisdom and we can learn from them. While not every scenario will find old folks trying to win a competition to go into space, this movie should at least put a smile on your face and make you think fondly of your parents or grandparents at least a tiny bit more.