Billionaires may see funding space travel as the best recourse for an uninhabitable planet (or, ahem, tourism wealth), but everyday folk have escape issues, too, albeit for more relatable reasons.
In the indie drama “Space Oddity,” the rocketing-to-Mars dreams of a space-obsessed young man are a barely concealed cover for lingering grief. That’s a compelling set-up for a knotty family story, but not as evidenced by the surface cutes that keep real feeling at bay in this curiously uninvolving directorial effort from Kyra Sedgwick.
We meet wholesome-looking Alex McAllister (Kyle Allen, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things”) as he delivers some eager, presentational voiceover about “mankind’s next chapter,” along with glimpses of space-travel paraphernalia, and shots of him running through flower fields and woods to a percolating, galactic-tinged score out of a planetarium show. An astronaut in training, Alex is thrilled to be part of a privately funded, hotly hyped program aimed at colonizing Mars where, Alex tells us in voiceover, he will “explore, marry, pioneer and die.”
His family on a Rhode Island flower farm, however, see things differently. To his skeptical publicist sister Liz (Madeline Brewer, “The Handmaid’s Tale”), a one-way trip toward isolation on a barren planet is the sign of someone not facing reality. To their accommodating mom, Jane (Carrie Preston), it’s merely a project that’s at least getting her son out of bed in the mornings, our first clue there’s been some emotional upheaval at home tied to a hard-to-address tragedy.
Alex’s man-of-few-words dad, Jeff (Kevin Bacon), meanwhile, is counting on his son’s preoccupation being a whim that will give way to his eventually taking over the struggling family business. And what about the smiling, flirtatious new girl in town, Daisy (Alexandra Shipp), an insurance agent with her own thorny past, but ready to start something up with Alex if he’ll take his eyes away from the stars for one second?
Despite a premise that suggests a keen understanding of our modern penchant for the comfort of fantasy and solitude over the hard work of facing what ails yo screenwriter Rebecca Banner’s seems to prefer the conventional over the complicated. It’s a fine line between metaphor and cliché, so while a movie set on a farm about the fear of laying down roots is both understandable and convenient, a CPR-training date scene when we know Daisy is there to “save” Alex is just pushing things. (Also, the horticultural name Daisy? –- yes, the characters even reference it, but still.)
The characters are awfully affable and ever-smiling for a scenario supposedly born of crippling bereavement (revealed, as script construction dictates, in the third act). Sedgwick has a commendable light touch as a director, but her steadily Hallmark-like focus on what’s charming, quaint and perky about everything in the story — teasing date patter, small-town life, family bickering, the friendly and wise Russian-émigré farmhand (Simon Helberg) — dilute the idea that there’s an emotional trajectory from darkness to light that we want to feel more deeply.
In fact, turn off the dialogue and sound (which does include a version of the titular Bowie song), and you’d be hard-pressed to guess that anybody was going through anything. It starts with Allen’s oddly bland performance, which hardly bears the markings of deep pain (in the way his spotless clothes never reflect the field work he’s supposedly doing). Though Shipp’s tart-tongued character is constructed mostly to be a magnet of healing, she has an appealing enough rom-com fizz that one ponders what a movie built more around her baggage, charisma and agency would look like.
The rest of the McAllister clan, meanwhile, are solid performers (especially Preston), rarely having to do more than what’s expected, although Sedgwick’s husband has one deftly underplayed, affecting breakdown scene that reminds usof how dependably present an actor Bacon hs been for decades. Forty years ago, the “Diner”-era Bacon would have nailed the mix of prickly delusion and submerged warmth we’re not getting from the Alex in this “Space Oddity,” which too often settles for telegraphing its good feeling at every turn instead of richly charting the difficult road from emotional outer space to inner peace.
“Space Oddity” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.