By Jeremy Carr.
Septuagenarian grandfather Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) has harbored dreams of space since he was a child. Although the waning years of his life have generally clouded those fancies, thanks to life’s bitter two-pronged tinge of disappointment and regret, he still looks to the stars in order to “see where we belong.” In Astronaut (2019), the feature debut from Canadian-born British writer-director Shelagh McLeod, Angus finds where he belongs, and in a sense, it’s where he’s already been.
The primary obstacle in Angus’ path, however, as is often voiced throughout the film (more than necessary given its instant obviousness), is his age. From his doctor’s rather callous advice to “keep up the good fight, because what’s the alternative,” to the constant familial worries about his bad heart, Angus is repeatedly reminded of his debilitating mortality; his daughter, Molly (Krista Bridges), albeit with the best of intentions, frowns upon his decision to even take their dog for a walk without his cell phone. But just as he seems ready, if unwilling, to throw in the towel, a sudden burst of inspirational reinvigoration strikes. A nationwide contest spearheaded by Elon Musk-esque entrepreneur Marcus (Colm Feore) offers the chance for select individuals, chosen by lottery, to embark on a two-week journey in space aboard his pioneering commercial space plane.
Of course, Angus’ name is chosen. As it happens, though, while he is excitedly hoping to cash in his golden ticket to the final frontier, he has also been relegated to an unremarkable retirement home, the pathetic arrival at which is the first of Astronaut’s several tragic-comic sequences of despair and droll apathy. Amongst the facility’s more insipid, acquiescent residents, Angus quickly assumes the role of a rebellious curmudgeon too cool for school. But aside from his wordless interaction with Graham Greene’s mute, wheelchair-bound invalid, Len, Angus’ most heartwarming and rousing relationship is with his grandson, Barney (Richie Lawrence). Unlike Jim (Lyriq Bent) – Barney’s father, Molly’s husband – who tells his son wishes don’t come true, young Barney hops happily on board with his grandfather’s interstellar aspirations. As instantly unlikable as Bent makes Jim (and Bridges is lukewarm at best), Lawrence gives Barney an admirable enthusiasm, joining Angus in his wide-eyed wonder, offering to have a fake ID made for the old man (who fudged his admission age by several years), and even applying make-up to his elder before Angus’ excruciatingly unsuccessful live interview.
Through the course of all this (up to and including its uplifting yet unsatisfactory finale), Astronaut succumbs to a number of predictable contrivances. Nearly every character has a spell of silent introspection or wistful longing, rarely with adequate resonance, and the initial cynicism Angus faces when it comes to his passion (the entrants are dismissed as “nutcases” by one unpleasant nurse) is inevitably countered by the enthusiastic projection of others as they overcome their own disenchantment to rally behind his cause. Among several convenient improbabilities: Angus comes inside his home from stargazing just as an announcement about the space contest happens to show on television; a trip to the bathroom puts him in earshot of some concerned spaceship employees; and in the end, he somehow manages to not only enter the guarded premises of Marcus’ high-tech establishment but finds his way to the office of the man himself. Most painfully obvious is when Angus begins a crossword puzzle, is stumped by an eleven-letter word that means “fluke,” is made aware of winning the contest, and then happily figures it out. “Serendipity,” he notes, hitting the dramatic crux a little too squarely on the nose.
Shot in Ontario and premiering at last month’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, McLeod’s film partly makes up for its instances of demonstrative strain through an application of Angus’ prior occupation as a civil engineer. When the immediate promise of his outer space expedition is thwarted, Angus refuses to give up on the mission’s importance and instead seeks to contribute by way of his occupational insight, recognizing a potentially disastrous fault with the geological constitution of the Marcus’ hastily planned runway. Relaying Astronaut’s central premise – that the experience and acumen of an older generation should not be dismissed out of hand – Angus proves his worth in convincing fashion. In these bittersweet moments of seasoned revelation and comparatively grounded interest, Dreyfuss’s superb performance becomes Astronaut’s saving grace. Disregarding the perception of his spouting crackpot conspiracies, Angus’ stirring professional confidence gives the legendary actor sufficient opportunity to sell the earnest, vocalized and physical passion of one frustrated but nonetheless persistent senior citizen.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.