July 18-- Writer-director Shelagh McLeod never gets too far away from the constant pull of sentimental gravity with her feature film "Astronaut" but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a place for movies like "Astronaut" that celebrate the wisdom of the ages, embrace the unbroken power of marital devotion and exalt the virtues of never giving up on a dream.
The dreamer is Angus (Richard Dreyfuss), a widower long past retirement age who struggles with the emptiness of life on a daily basis. His resolve is tested when the decision is made by his family to send him to a facility for older people where he has more time than ever to ponder the missed moments of his life. One of his biggest regrets is that he never had the chance become an astronaut.
He faces a ramped up version of his regrets when a national competition is announced with the winner to get a ticket for a trip to space on a vehicle designed and built by a private firm. Angus tries to ignore the competition because he's well past the age limit. But the perpetual pushing by his grandson, Barney (Richie Lawrence), finally convinces Angus to take one more chance at keeping his dream alive even if winning the contest would be a death sentence due to his failing health.
Although the central hook of "Astronaut" is the potential trip into space, McLeod shows with her first time writing and directing the good sense to give the project a broader orbit of appeal. The heart of the film is all about family whether it is the beautiful way Dreyfuss plays his character's pining for his true love to the interaction between grandson and grandfather.
That family element even bleeds into the facility where Angus lives as the group of mature residents show the kind of caring and bond for each other that goes directly to family core values. Just to keep things from getting to familiar, McLeod accents this world with a dash of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" through the scenes featuring Angus and the man of few words, Len (Graham Greene).
The film's best moments are those with Dreyfuss and Lawrence. Dreyfuss has put together a marvelous career playing characters who have a crusty exterior guarding a soft inside. McLeod uses Lawrence to very slowly help peel away that exterior giving Dreyfuss the chance to play a character who is deeply sympathetic but not someone who is demanding sympathy.
A big part of McLeod being able to direct Dreyfuss to that entertaining level comes from her own past. She had built up a long career in front of the camera before taking on this project and that experience is reflected in how she was able to get such solid acting efforts from everyone in the "Astronaut" cast.
McLeod also avoids the familiar plot holes that tend to spring up in a film where someone who is considered less capable of handling a task rises to the challenge. The easy approach would have been to have Angus turn into some kind of super candidate for the space mission even without a solid explanation. McLeod does give Angus a heroic moment that is hinted at throughout the movie but it is so anchored in reality that anyone – old or young – will be able to relate to the moment.
All of this comes in a package that is more sentimental than a Hallmark card but never slips into a sugary coma because of Dreyfuss. His ability to give a sweet moment a gruff edge takes the overall project into a higher stratosphere of acting. McLeod's casting of Dreyfuss takes what would have been a very mundane story and gives it an emotional life that is touching without slipping into the melodramatic.
There are places for movies like "Astronaut" and happily, McLeod has help fill that void with at least one solid entry.
"Astronaut" opens in selected theaters July 26 as well as being available through video on demand and digital HD that day.
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Lyriq Bent, Krista Bridges, Graham Greene, Richie Lawrence, Colm Feore.
Director: Shelagh McLeod
Rated: Not rated
Running time: 87 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.