What is it about boys and rockets? October Sky follows the familiar rhythms of a coming-of-age story, set around model rockets, the Cold War and a stagnating West Virginia coal town. This satisfying film leavens drama with the joys of lift-off, only occasionally descending into treacly sentiment.
In October Sky, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggles to avoid his father's grim life as a coal miner by winning a national science fair and college scholarship with the perfect rocket. His journey starts the day after the Soviet Union bests America by launching the satellite Sputnik, when Homer fails to make the football team, on which his brother stars. The town eventually rallies around the Rocket Boys as Homer and three friends doggedly try to get a rocket fuelled by West Virginia moonshine to fly straight, redeeming the town and perhaps even the country.
At the heart of the movie, based on a true story, is the well-drawn, conflicted relationship between Homer and his hard-willed father John (a terrific performance by Chris Cooper), who's top among the local coal miners.
Director Joe Johnston cleverly evokes the 1950s teenage social order: witness the roar of conversation in the school cafeteria when Homer sits down to talk rockets with the geeky Quentin (Chris Owen). But we could have done without the hackneyed attempts to give Homer a romantic interest, the heavy-handed opposition he faces from the school principal and the blatant foreshadowing of a mine tragedy. Laura Dern plays Homer's inspiring teacher Miss Riley on one note, with a strained smile.
All told, October Sky arrives on the right side of the fine line between a classic and a cliché. For anybody who's been a boy obsessed with rockets, or even known one, this is a welcome trip down memory lane.