'Astronaut': Film Review | Edinburgh 2019

Close encounters of the autumnal kind.
7/26/2019

Richard Dreyfuss plays a grouchy grandfather with interstellar ambitions in writer-director Shelagh McLeod's debut feature.

Former Spielberg regular Richard Dreyfuss makes a rare return to the big screen in Astronaut, playing an irascible grandfather who refuses to give up his lifelong dream of blasting off into space. But despite its title, this mild-mannered feature debut from British TV actor turned writer-director Shelagh McLeod remains determinedly earthbound for most of its duration, more heart-tugging family saga than intergalactic adventure.

World-premiering in Edinburgh this week, Astronaut is a poignant rumination on late-life regrets, its plot partly inspired by the death of McLeod's own mother. Clearly a first-time feature, this Canada-shot production is a little low on spark, with a flat TV-movie feel at times. But the presence of Dreyfuss and the uplifting theme of plucky senior citizens reaching for the stars should give it a modest shot at theatrical traction, especially with the increasingly important audience demographic of older cinemagoers. It is set to open July 26 in the U.S.

Angus (Dreyfuss) is a retired civil engineer on the cusp of 80, recently widowed and still grieving for his late wife as he finalizes the sale of their former home. A temporary stay with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) strengthens his pan-generational bond with his adoring grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), who shares his passion for astronomy and space travel. But frail health and escalating tensions with Molly's husband Jim (Lyriq Bent) eventually push Angus to grudgingly accept a move into a retirement home.

McLeod wrings some agreeably gentle comedy from these scenes in the home, with its cast of charmingly kooky residents and starchy, overly controlling staff. As Angus stirs up a quiet mutiny among his fellow inmates, Astronaut starts to feel like One Flew Over the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But unlike the donkeys in the heavily symbolic sanctuary that his late wife was conned into buying as her health declined, Angus is not ready to be put out to pasture just yet. Encouraged by Barney, he enters a TV contest to win a seat on the first-ever private-passenger space flight, a promotional stunt organized by Elon Musk-style technology tycoon Marcus (Colm Feore). By lying about his age and playing down his heart problems, Angus scrapes into the final shortlist. Even though he knows the mission could kill him, he decides he would rather burn out than fade away.

Drawing on decades of experience building roads and bridges, Angus becomes suspicious during the space trials, raising safety questions about the launch runway which Marcus dismissively overrules. Although he risks sabotaging his dream of going into orbit, Angus goes public with his worries. Astronaut becomes a public showdown between two stubborn old men, locking horns over their rival expertise and waiting to see who will blink first.

With its nameless North American suburban setting, quaint emphasis on old-fashioned family values and glib message about keeping your inner child alive, Astronaut contains hints of vintage Spielberg that go deeper than the presence of Dreyfuss. Of course, McLeod lacks a Spielberg-sized budget, so this heartwarming effect is often muted by practical limitations. The washed-out snowy backdrop, shot in Ontario in bitterly cold midwinter, also works against the story's wistful late-summer mood.

McLeod's directing inexperience is hard to ignore at times. Her script feels a little bald, with thinly rendered characters and a dramatic tempo that rarely gets into high gear. That said, she maintains an admirably balanced emotional tone, never sinking to the obvious temptation of full-blown sentimentality. For a first feature, Astronaut is a respectable effort overall.

Among the generally solid supporting cast, credit is due to Lawrence, who breathes life into the kind of clean-cut, peachy-keen, elder-respecting grandchild archetype not seen onscreen since Hollywood discovered the surly teenager. The 71-year-old Dreyfuss gives a worthy autumnal performance, low on vanity, more actor than star. His brooding role requires him to dial down his signature live-wire energy, though McLeod indulges him with a few pleasing bursts of the old manic, fast-talking intensity. At times, Angus could almost be an older cousin of Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, still obsessively watching the skies, still dreaming of the stars.

Production companies: Buck Productions, Eggplant Pictures
Distributor: Quiver
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Richie Lawrence, Krista Bridges, Lyriq Bent, Graham Greene, Colm Feore
Director-screenwriter: Shelagh McLeod
Producers: Jessica Adams, Sean Buckley
Executive producers: Jeff Sackman, Berry Meyerowitz, Richard Dreyfuss, Lyriq Bent

Cinematographer: Scott McClellan
Production designer: Helen Kotsonis
Costume designer: Crystal Silden

Music: Virginia Kilbertus
Editor: Tiffany Beaudin
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival

91 minutes