Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is a Texas rancher who left NASA years ago to care for his family when his father died. Years later, Farmer, a small-town resident and married father of three, keeps his space dreams alive by building a rocket in his barn and planning a long-overdue orbit of the earth.
Problems arise when he tries to buy the 10,000 pounds of fuel to get his dream off the ground. He's already overdrawn on his many previous loans used to build the rocket, and his longsuffering banker friend threatens to finally foreclose on the family farm. Then, on the eve of his launch, the government learns of his attempt to purchase such a large quantity of fuel, and shows up en masse to investigate his intentions.
If only the movie's problems were this simple.
The first issue is believability. Sure the plot is far-fetched—but somewhat endearingly so. I showed up with a willing suspension of disbelief, expecting the writers and actors to attempt to give the plot a leg to stand on within the first 10 to 20 minutes of the film. And while we learn that Farmer got his rocket parts from a nearby NASA junkyard, we never learn how this astronaut dropout acquired the skills to assemble a working spacecraft. We never see him train for his coming trip into space. Heck, we never even see this Texas rancher attend to his farm. Mostly we see him brood about complaining that the government is trampling on his dream.
The Astronaut Farmer also pulls out just about every small town and government worker stereotype in the book. There's the aw-shucks, sideburned cop named Chopper. The colorful judge who demands that Farmer have a psych evaluation by none other than the high school nurse, a dottering former flame of Farmer's who dispenses the helpful wisdom that people are like onions and that his pent-up childhood anger can't fuel his rocket. The CIA, FBI, and FAA guys all screech onto the Farmer property simultaneously in their matching black SUVs and government-issue sunglasses. They're all incredibly narrow-minded and a bit bumbling.
Thankfully, Farmer's local lawyer friend has a Big Time Lawyer friend in Manhattan, who "just happens to specialize in cases like this." He counsels them to use the media to their advantage. In an amazing bit of timing, the media all show up the following day at precisely the same moment, cameras and tape recorders rolling. Though neither they nor the government have inspected Farmer's rocket, and all they can really confirm is that the man attempted to buy a boatload of fuel, these reporters have deemed Farmer a small town hero—a dreamer to inspire us all. In a media frenzy that would make Paris Hilton envious, within hours Farmer is a national hero, gracing T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards, and Jay Leno monologues.
Throughout the ordeal, Farmer's family serves as both morale boosters and mission control. His teenaged son, Shepherd (Max Thieriot), who's apparently an engineering genius, helped him build the rocket. His young giggly daughters happily eat "planetary pancakes" and eventually don flippers and floaties to help Dad train at the local pool. Farmer's wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), a diner waitress, offers admirable unconditional support—wavering understandably when it looks like they might lose their home. After a heated discussion about what his dream might cost the family, all concerns seem eclipsed by the notion that he must persevere to show their kids that you never give up on a dream.
This is a lovely message for a movie, and I want to walk away with this ideal. But I still can't shake the feeling that Farmer is being more selfish than inspirational. At what point is putting your family's livelihood on the line foolhardy instead of brave and daring? While Farmer's dogged determination, despite setbacks and failures, is admirable, at what point does it become an unhealthy obsession?
Much of the action comes to a head in a hearing—held, of course, at the high school gymnasium. Sitting at an imposing table on the stage, a dozen or so uniformed men offer stern warnings and threats to Farmer and his lawyer buddy, who are seated at a card table on the gym floor. The government officials issue concerns about national safety, but are portrayed as most worried about being upstaged by a lone civilian. Farmer shoots back that the government has long been good at keeping down men with dreams, and offers the movie's inspirational tag-line, "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing."
Though the movie does muster more plausibility and heart in the final third, ultimately dreams are the only thing this movie has—dreams of being an Inspiring Family Film. Would that that were enough. And for those who like safe, predictable, fluffy family fare, it probably will be. But in light of films such as October Sky, Dear Frankie, and Millions—family-friendly movies that inspire and offer three-dimensional characters, creative yet plausible plot twists, and compelling dialogue—we know there's so much more possible than what's being offered here. In that sense, The Astronaut Farmer doesn't aim or dream nearly high enough.Discussion starters
- Do you think Farmer's dream is admirable or selfish? At what point is taking risks brave and at what point does it become foolhardy?
- At one point, Audie takes the kids to church to learn about forgiveness, saying they'll need it for Farmer. Her words point to the fact that forgiveness is a choice. Is there anyone—especially anyone in your family—you need to choose to forgive?
- Farmer says, "If we don't have our dreams, we have nothing." What do you think of that line? If you agree, what are your dreams—and what role do they plan in your life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Astronaut Farmer is rated PG for thematic material, peril, and language. The language is mostly mild, and the danger merely results in some bruises and broken ribs. Government officials are portrayed as pretty idiotic, and therefore not to be respected or obeyed. This could launch an interesting conversation about when it's appropriate to stand up for your dreams, and convictions and when you need to honor the laws of the land.
Photos © Copyright Warner Independent
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 03/01/07
"Follow your dreams." That is one of the most prevalent messages in American filmmaking. But what if your dream is a little crazy? What if it upsets or inconveniences those around you? Should we follow all of our dreams … all of the time?
In The Astronaut Farmer, Billy Bob Thornton plays a rancher with a dream: He wants to be an astronaut. And as he strives to build his very own rocket, hoping it will launch him into orbit, he faces a great deal of criticism and skepticism. And some critics are suggesting that some of that skepticism might be justified.
But most of them are impressed with this flattering portrayal of a loving, churchgoing family.
Camerin Courtney (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Though the movie does muster more plausibility and heart in the final third, ultimately dreams are the only thing this movie has—dreams of being an Inspiring Family Film. Would that that were enough. And for those who like safe, predictable, fluffy family fare, it probably will be. But in light of films such as October Sky, Dear Frankie, and Millions—family-friendly movies that inspire and offer three-dimensional characters, creative yet plausible plot twists, and compelling dialogue—we know there's so much more possible than what's being offered here. In that sense, The Astronaut Farmer doesn't aim or dream nearly high enough."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says it "offers old-fashioned, down-home inspirational drama." He say it "seems as earnest and unironic as the day is long, a big old-fashioned inspirational ode to following one's dreams no matter what, to the goodness of family and the badness of bureaucracy." But he concludes that it "doesn't quite rise above its clichés. … [It] feels more often than not almost like a diagram of an inspirational film rather than a full-blooded example of the genre."
Lindy Keffer (Plugged In) says, "Hands down, the sweet portrayal of the Farmer family's relationships with each other are the best thing about this movie. … On top of that, there's the feel-good message about following dreams. But that's both a good thing and a bad thing. In principle, it's a great idea, but the way it plays out makes it less like the icing on the cake and more like a ketchup filling inside a pie. You can swallow it, and it won't kill you, but something's not quite right about it." She concludes by noting, "True greatness isn't about self-actualization, but about laying down your life for those you love."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a compelling case study on whether or not it's really worth the risk to follow the big dreams, despite daunting odds. More than anything, it's an interesting peek into the dynamics and potential rewards of something we don't often see: a functional, loving, supportive family. Yes, even Billy Bob Thornton has put a muzzle on for this feel-good flick and comes across as a warm, fatherly teacher and encourager."
Jenn Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "While the Polish brothers' movie does offer a refreshing reality in terms of families and dreamers, there are simply too many implausibilities for me to take the film as seriously as they seemed to have intended it."
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "The Astronaut Farmer is a sweet if wildly improbable film … . [T]he film has the gravity of a real-life biographical drama, but earns points for its strong affirmation of family, far more than the tiresome 'follow your dream' jargon which, in this case, seems fairly wacky."
Mainstream critics have mixed reactions to this Farmer.