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OCTOBER SKY

by: Scott Renshaw

OCTOBER SKY is a tough sort of film to get people to look at clearly. Touted in its marketing campaign as "inspirational" and "triumphant" -- usually code words for "sentimental" and "heavy-handed" -- it could easily lead more cynical movie-goers to dismiss it sight unseen as mawkish foolishness. Others, of a more feel-good nature, will think they have seen a great film simply because, well, it makes them feel good. It's hard for both potential sets of viewers to get a handle on why OCTOBER SKY works -- it avoids most of the traps the former group fears, while delivering the satisfying emotional resonance the latter group desires.

Set in 1957, OCTOBER SKY tells the true story of Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 17-year-old high school junior in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. Lacking the football skills of his older brother Jim (Scott Miles), which has been the only way out for most Coalwood youth, Homer seems destined to work in the coal mines like his father John (Chris Cooper). That's until the extraordinary event of October 1957 -- the launch of the Soviet rocket Sputnik -- inspires Homer to work on his own rocket. Recruiting classmates Quentin (Chris Owen), Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O'Dell (Chad Lindberg) to assist him, Homer sets out to create a rocket that will land him in the National Science Fair. Unfortunately, Homer's primary detractor is an important one: his father, who believes Homer's quest is a fool's errand.

This, of course, is the cue to begin your typical triumph of the spirit, winning-against-the-odds, kids-wiser-than-their parents crowd-pleaser. In some ways, the elements in OCTOBER SKY are quite typical: a determined young hero, societal obstacles, a big climax at a competitive event. Yet there are enough ways OCTOBER SKY is not typical to make it surprisingly effective. Director Joe Johnston, best known for special effects-driven films like JUMANJI and THE ROCKETEER, lends energy and humor to the montage of failed initial attempts at rocket flight. The production creates a complete, convincing picture of its small-town world, treating its characters with a clear-eyed realization that they're neither simple hicks nor salt-of-the-earth country folk. And there's something fundamentally, unconventionally appealing about a film where teenagers are obsessed with an intellectual pursuit, a film where the protagonist proves his innocence of a suspected crime by using a mathematical formula.

It is also unconventionally appealing to see a father-son relationship treated with such sensitivity and intelligence. Certainly it helps that an actor as subtly gifted as Chris Cooper is playing John Hickam. Too many actors would have made him a gruff thick-head who converts to understanding just in time for a big hug; Cooper makes John's stubbornness both caring and slightly dismissive of a boy acting smarter than his own pa. Jake Gyllenhaal is equally enjoyable as Homer, making his fascination with rocket science an expression of his desire to explore the universe beyond Coalwood. The interactions between John and Homer form OCTOBER SKY's emotional backbone, and nearly every one of them is pitched at a level of conflict which seems honest rather than movie-conflict shrill.

There are a number of occasions when OCTOBER SKY does begin to feel like its more convention-bound cousins. There is an obligatory romantic sub-plot for Homer which appears and disappears so quickly that there hardly seems to be a point; an illness experienced by Homer's favorite teacher (Laura Dern), while historically accurate, further bogs down the narrative. The last half-hour of OCTOBER SKY is not nearly as well-paced as the first hour, dragging out Homer's journey to the National Science Fair, but that doesn't detract from the film's many pleasures. OCTOBER SKY is inspirational, and it is triumphant; it's also smart, well-written,

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