Many children look up at the stars in wonder, and quite a few dream of traveling beyond the confines of earth—if not exactly to the stars, at least to a place where they can look at our planet from a more celestial point of view. With the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing nearly upon us, many of those children, now grown, may be remembering their youthful dreams, which they abandoned in the same way that most people come to accept that they’re not going to pitch for the New York Yankees or star in a Broadway musical. Knowledge of the tremendous distances involved in space travel, coupled with more mundane concerns like establishing an adult life here on earth, mean that most people learn to settle for experiencing the heavens through telescopes, planetarium shows, and the like.
Not Angus (Richard Dreyfuss). Now pushing eighty, he’s had a good career as an engineer, a long and loving marriage, and enjoys a warm relationship with his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence). He still loves to observe the heavens through his backyard telescope, an interest he shares with Barney, and enjoys a fairly comfortable life despite the fact that, like everyone else, he is not immune to the ravages of time. Angus’ wife recently died of Alzheimer’s Disease, he’s suffering from physical ailments that make it difficult to continue living in his own home, and he’s proving a bit of a burden for his adult daughter (Krista Bridges) and son-in-law (Lyriq Bent). The upshot is that Angus rather abruptly finds himself in a nursing home—a pretty nice one, to be sure, but also one full of reminders about his diminished status and what the future is likely to hold for him.
Meanwhile, an Elon Musk-like entrepreneur, Marcus (Colm Feore) has developed the technology to allow commercial space flight. To promote this new venture, Marcus is running a lottery to select three finalists for a free trip to space, the winner to be selected through interviews. The upper age limit for the contest is 65, but Angus easily fakes his way around that, the first of many improbabilities that accumulate as this film’s story progresses. His choice to dream big draws the admiration of his fellow nursing home residents, to the point where you might be wondering if the film is heading in the direction of a remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode Kick the Can.
Astronaut, which is having its North American premiere at Fantasia 2019, is much less about space travel than it is about family dynamics and the process of aging, and Dreyfuss’ performance sells it as well as anyone possibly could. That’s saying quite a lot since the screenplay by Shelagh McLeod, who also directed, relies far too much on wishful thinking and has a magpie-like habit of incorporating undigested bits and pieces of better movies into its story line. Astronaut is also pointlessly cruel in its portrayal of the nursing home staff, and, coupled with the fact that Angus’ best buddy in the home is played by Graham Greene, can’t help but remind viewers of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’ll find yourself thinking “of course” quite a few times while watching this movie, and you’ll need a high tolerance for sentimentality to make it to the end, but if you’re OK with both of those stipulations, you will be rewarded by a strong lead performance from Dreyfuss. | Sarah Boslaugh