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by Jay Seaver

"Parents in different cities is tough on kids. A mom in space..."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 45: Among the many things that intrigue about Proxima is how the standard narrative of movies like this seem built to push the story, and the audience, in a specific direction. Lots of movies that didn't live up to their potential have made it as easy to joke about them being about "discovering what's REALLY important" as "friends we made along the way" or the like. And yet that construction works, because what counters it? [I]Proxima[/I] is at its best when it makes you wonder.

It is, from one side, the story of Sarah Loreau (Eva Green), a brilliant engineer and astronaut candidate at the European Space Agency, who has just been selected for the "Proxima" mission, a year-long stay on the International Space Station with American Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) and Russian Anton Ocheivsky (Aleksey Fateev) which will serve as a sort of dry run for a mission to Mars. The training at Space City in Russia will be intense, but that is not the hardest part: She has a daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant), a bright seven-year-old (though dyslexia and dyscalculia make school more difficult), and while it's likely that her ex Thomas Akerman (Lars Eidinger) will step up more than he has, a year is a very long time at that age.

From the other, it's the story of a little girl who has seemed to get through a divorce unscathed but is now faced with not just moving to a new city in a new country, but her mother voluntarily leaving her for over a year. Though Matt Dillon is naturally going to be billed and credited second, young Zélie Boulant is clearly the film's other lead, and she does impressive work for one so young, aided by a script by director Alice Winocour and co-writer Jean-Stéphane Bron that seldom presumes to get inside a child's mind but certainly gives Boulant many opportunities to present all the nervousness and anger that seeming abandonment will cause while also demonstrating the immense, unbreakable love and awe she has for her mother. Children are often pawns or abstractions in movies about parents trying to balance family and career, but Stella is a real kid whose needs and desires are not necessarily simple. Indeed, part of what makes this so agonizing for Sarah is that she and the audience can see the very real possibility of Stella not being destroyed but growing away from her mother.

What can counter this? Obviously, you have to be extremely driven to be an astronaut, almost single-minded, something that kind of seems cute early, as Sarah uses spaceflight jargon as she tucks Stella into bed, or just that she has a daughter named "Stella", a cat named "Laika", and an astrophysicist for an ex-husband, because where else is she going to meet someone? She's so focused that she seems surprised by the ESA assigning a child psychologist (Sandra Hüller) to her family But on top of that, Winocour and Bron do a tremendously impressive job about detailing the special pressures a woman must put up with in this environment - the seemingly dismissive comments Mike makes during a press conference, the male doctor who won't immediately accept her decisions on whether or not to suppress menstruation during the mission, and all of the women who are so much behind her that she's worried about letting them down. It's not something Winocour ever has Sarah address directly, but it's something one can easily see in both her attempts to push herself too hard and her moments of despair.

Eva Green picks that up and runs with it. Winocour taps into how there's something a bit larger-than-life about Green - it's not just that she's beautiful, but she's always projected incredible confidence to go with it, something that translates to Sarah being headstrong and a little intimidating, even to Stella. How does a kid say what she really feels when she's meeting her astronaut mom in the room where they give press conferences during quarantine? Green takes that charisma and makes sure that Sarah doesn't become a villain even as Stella is hurting, while also showing that others emotional investment can be a lot to bear. There are moments when one wonders if this is the first time she's ever felt self-doubt toward the end, a slight variation on the nerves that many films call for at that point.

She does this against an interesting background that could easily overwhelm the film, but never does. It would be easy for the details of the training in Star City to take over the film, but that never happens; Winocour instead makes the specifics interesting but never never overwhelming, and the space between astronaut being just another job and something completely divorced from most of the audience's experience is not so wide as one might think. She and cinematographer Georges Lechaptois also have a real talent for building and finding great shots, from one where Stella wanders off during a press event and winds up in a lunar diorama to a final shot of her watching wild horses from a train, the audience noting the one running with a foal and how often Stella looks up.

It's a real credit to the movie that it can get to that scene without having to do something obvious to tip audience sympathies one way or another, or particularly note that we as a society don't ask the same questions about men like Mike taking on these sort of commitments that we do for women like Sarah. There's never much doubt that the movie is about this, but it seems rare that a film will can be about it in such a clear and elegant fashion.

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originally posted: 02/09/20 10:25:43
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  DVD: 08-Dec-2020

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