Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thorton; Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball)is a former pilot on track to fulfill his dream as an astronaut for NASA. When his father dies tragically, he quits the program to return home and save the family farm. He marries Audie (Virginia Madsen; Sideways) and they have three children, all of whom support Charlie’s dream of going into space. Charlie becomes tired of waiting, however, and he and his son, Shep (Max Theriot; The Pacifier, Nancy Drew) start to build a spaceship in the barn. When Charlie orders several thousand pounds of rocket fuel, however, the FBI takes notice. At the same time, the bank calls his loan on the farm.
Audie’s dad Hal (Bruce Dern) comes to visit and he notices how the family works together. He tells Charlie, “I could never get my kids to eat together, and you have your family dreaming together.” When Audie finds out how bad their finances are, she draws the line and things become tense. Charlie even calls one of his friends from NASA (played by an un-credited Bruce Willis in a kind of nod to Armageddon, a film about space in which he and Thorton starred) to see if he thinks Charlie’s plan to take off will work. Even though few continue to believe in him, Charlie presses on.
When I was invited to a screening of The Astronaut Farmer I was told it was a “small film” as if not to expect very much. But early on in the film, when the judge sends Charlie to the nurse at the local school to be evaluated after he tosses a brick through the bank window to protest the immanent foreclosure on the farm, he and a student share a moment of misery that just made me smile. Thorton gives an excellent performance, as does Madsen when Charlie’s dreams and her need to preserve her family collide in the kitchen accompanied by flying saucers (dinner plates) as punctuation.
By the end, I was very moved, and thought, “This is a movie you just have to like.”
Made on a shoestring by Michael and Mark Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, North Fork), The Astronaut Farmer is about daring to dream. As Mark Polish told a group of journalists, the film is not about science, but about family. It’s full of heart and charm and it will make you smile.