Those looking for a Rocky-style tale of overcoming the odds, albeit with a rocket instead of knockout punch, will likely be disappointed by The Astronaut Farmer (rated PG for thematic peril), a quiet, thoughtful film that dwells as much on the value of family as it does on the importance of dreams.
After a personal crisis forces him to drop out of NASA's aeronautical program, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) reaches for the stars the only way that is left to him, by building a shuttle in his barn and planning his own launch. Though the dream takes a lot from the Farmer family in time and money, it gives them a lot as well. Farmer's two young daughters squeal when their hero comes to school to educate the kids on space travel. His bright, sensitive son enjoys countless hours strategizing and soldering with dad in the backyard. And Audie (Virginia Madsen), Farmer's wife, uses the project as an opportunity to build her husband up and enhance their marital bond.
In the wrong hands such Rockwellian images could feel saccharine, but thanks to phenomenal performances all around, the casually loving interactions of the Farmer family will ring true to anyone who grew up in a traditional family. And they could very well create a fleeting ache over what might have been for those who didn't.
The film fumbles a bit when it celebrates Farmer's pursuit of his ambition over his responsibility to provide for his family, but eventually it returns to earth. Days before the planned takeoff, Farmer's father-in-law (Bruce Dern) is awed not at Farmer's achievement of building a rocket but of building unity in his family. "I couldn't even get my family to sit down for a meal together," the old man sighs, "and you have yours dreaming together."
So while The Astronaut Farmer may occasionally get its priorities mixed up, it is refreshing to spend some time with a movie that acknowledges the unique role that men play in families-a role that cannot be filled by any of today's trendy substitutes.