Astronaut, the directorial debut from Shelagh McLeod, who also writes the screenplay, features legendary Richard Dreyfuss as Angus, a retired civil engineer and widower who loves the stars and everything in the literal space above us. Living with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), her husband Jim (Lyriq Bent) and their son Barney (Richie Lawrence), he’s moved in while they sell off the family home, after his late wife lost their money with a misguided investment during her illness.
While Molly is seemingly happy to have him there, she’s being pressured by Jim into moving him out and they all start visiting retirement homes to find a suitable place for Angus to move into. During this, and his relocation to a home that suits their needs, he enters a Elon Musk-like competition, led by inventor Marcus Brown (Colm Feore), which promises to take a lucky winner into space on the first ever passenger flight.
While the premise is reasonably achievable in this day and age, there’s not always a steady balance from McLeod between the home life and Angus’ dream to head beyond the stars. While Molly’s home life setup does become a little bit of a distraction, and doesn’t always play as deeply as I think they’d like it to, her relationship with her Dad does feel genuine and that’s where she comes alive. A lot of what keeps it all ticking over is a performance from Dreyfuss that’s both stirring and emotive. Still suffering from the loss of his long-term love, and the feeling of being pushed away, Dreyfuss’s Angus is full of longing but also hope. It’s also his relationship with his Grandson Barney that sparks the narrative, young Richie Lawrence‘s enthusiasm (and encouragement) of his Grandad’s secret plan to travel to the stars really does ignite on-screen.
Angus’ dreams aren’t just cannon-fodder either, there’s educational context with his civil engineer knowledge, which all connect to his quest to be the winner of a spot on the spaceship. With a high concept idea above it all, this could easily become complicated but the story isn’t just about space, it’s a mediation on the past, someone’s experience, the future and individual relationships. If anything, it’s about accepting and changing your ways, at every age. Again, what’s key here is how exceptional Dreyfuss is when he’s given his moment, to explore, to fight for something. Every little look and expression comes across as wonderfully as it ever did. Those little side-smiles and charm shine through, alongside genuine fragility in moments of tenderness.
While I do think Astronaut takes time to find itself, and you may have to suspend disbelief to get there as well, there’s no doubt this film has a deep heart and is an especially positive tonic to much of what’s going on the wider world, especially right now. By the time we come to the affecting finale, you’ve seen a caring, reflective narrative on age, missed chances and not always achieving what you set out to but, you know, there are other moments that make it all right, even if it’s not always where you think it’ll be.