The year is 1957. As Sputnik parts the October sky over a humble West Virginia coal mining town, one idealistic teen hatches visions of sending his own rockets into space. A mere flight of fancy on the way to a preordained mining career? Not if this decent young man can win the science fair … and a ticket out.
October Sky is based on the true story of how young Homer Hickam and three classmates beat the odds and inspired a myopic community to believe that dreams are worth chasing. It’s stand-up-and-cheer fun. And it revisits an era when creativity, a thirst for knowledge and innocent boyhood exploration filled after-school hours—before kids were narcotized by VCRs, MTV, N64 and other modern marvels with names abbreviated to match shrinking attention spans.
Commercials for October Sky emphasize dew-eyed aspirations and rocket science. But equally central to the story is Homer’s strained, often adversarial relationship with his coal miner dad, a chiseled company man with a noble streak who seems committed to everyone but his son. The elder Hickam, John, is set on seeing his son follow in his coal dust-covered footsteps and vocally opposes his Homer’s desire to pursue rocketry as anything more than a hobby.
“He wants to be a scientist and his father can’t understand that. It’s like Homer saying he wants to be a martian. So they constantly bump heads,” says Jake Gyllenhaal, the fine young actor who plays Homer.
On several occasions, John viciously attacks his son’s dignity and publicly humiliates him. He and the boy square off at high volume, putting poor Mom in the middle of this stubborn clash of wills. But eventually, Dad comes through in the clutch. Elsewhere, a bold step toward reconciliation originates with Homer—a great example for adolescents who feel helpless to improve intergenerational conflict in their own homes. After the smoke clears, that volatile, ultimately redeemed father/son relationship leaves the lasting impression that healing has begun.
Despite a PG rating, the movie contains a liberal dose of mild profanity. A real disappointment. In addition, Homer’s buddy mocks virginity and coaches him on stealthily touching a girl’s breast. Brief scenes also show the boys stealing lumber and feeling the effects of moonshine. Those moments are unfortunate considering this encouraging tale’s many positive themes: cooperation, sacrifice, community, perseverance, hard work, encouragement and owning up to one’s actions.
In a time when small-town morals are seen as outdated and irrelevant, this film offers a refreshing reminder of their value. Like Rudy, Hoosiers or Fly Away Home, October Sky is a heroic, if imperfect film. It’s a shame the messages that propel it are weighed down by language that will, for some families, keep October Sky from ever getting off the ground.