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Astronaut (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Richard Dreyfuss still yearns for space."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are times when I lament modestly-scaled movies being lucky to get a blip of a release in theaters as they head to the small screen, and there are other times when the likely-small theatrical release they will receive alongside their on-demand premieres seems like a nice little bonus. "Astronaut" falls into the latter category, pleasantly intimate but losing little when played for a crowd.

It's the tale of Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss), a 75-year-old retired civil engineer who, between his own health issues and his late wife being taken in by a scam during her mental decline, has recently found himself moving in with daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), though that itself is a brief stop on the way to an assisted-living facility. A stargazer since his youth, he might not have let Barney encourage him to enter the lottery for a seat on the commercial space plane being developed by Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) and his company despite being well over the age-65 cutoff, but he doesn't feel <I>that</I> old. He is, of course, chosen as one of the twelve finalists, though what he sees on the runway leaves him distracted during the televised interview.

It's been around forty years since the last time Richard Dreyfuss got on a spaceship with the odds long that his family would ever see him again, and while that's a dumb movie joke on the one hand, it's a neat thing for director Shelagh McLeod to have hanging over the film in some ways. It's a part of the background noise of the movie and as such not something she has to return to and risk overplaying. It's an approach that benefits the film as she fills it out with other subplots; the threads about Jim being suspended at work and Marcus perhaps overlooking dangers because of his ambition fill some time and connect well with Angus's story, but don't become sort of thing that threaten to take up too much of the film's focus that they could have. It's relaxed, and with much of the story taking place during a snowy winter, ideal for watching from under a blanket.

Dreyfuss brings more than just the memory of an iconic performance with him; he's still got the smart-but-scruffy everyman appeal that played a big part of making his collaborations with Steven Spielberg into classics, although it's a bit warmer now as a grandfather. He and McLeod have good instincts for when to deploy a quick wit and when to let Angus be ruffled, hitting the right spot to highlight how age can make things a little harder and how it can make them seem a lot harder to everyone else; both of those have a certain amount of truth. It's an excellent match between actor and role.

The cast around him is solid as well. Sometimes it seems like Krista Bridges, Richie Lawrence, and Lyriq Bent could do with playing a bit more off each other rather than Dreyfuss, just to show what their dynamics are like when their life is not revolving around grandpa, but they each handle their roles very well, with Bent especially doing good work in getting Jim from the abrasive son-in-law to someone who gets into Angus's corner. Colm Feore seems fortunate that McLeod affords him a little more time than other filmmakers might give his character: Marcus's function in the story is endangering everything with his hubris, but Feore's got enough room to play him as more human and less a plot device, and so he's never an actual villain.

It's the sort of thing that would have been an enjoyable TV-movie back when the broadcast networks regularly produced such things, especially since it doesn't really have the budget to pay things off in a way that would stun on the big screen. It's probably in the right spot, then, even if it may be harder for its audience to find than in times past: It's a sweet and charming movie done well enough that it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

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originally posted: 07/16/19 03:08:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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