A Million Miles Away
Michael Peña stars in this true inspirational story of a migrant kid who became an astronaut, a tale that may be a bit corny but is undeniably full of heart.
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“A Million Miles Away” is a true story of inspiration and perseverance, the tale of a migrant Mexican-American kid who grew up to be an astronaut. In an early scene we see him leaving a cornfield with his family for their next job picking crops, and he holds an ear out the car window like a rocketship , slicing the wind as he dreams about one day reaching the stars.
It’s an apt analogy for what experiencing this movie is like: a bit corny, but undeniably full of heart.
Michael Peña stars as José Hernández, and I’m not giving it away to say that he does eventually make it space. After all, they don’t make movies about people who spend 30 years chasing their dream and then come up just short.
Rather, it’s about the wish he made as a kid, and then the long climb against all odds to get there. It’s a story not of setting big goals but the incredible sacrifices necessary to get there — not just for Jose, but also his parents, wife and children.
What makes ordinary people extraordinary is not just ability and smarts, but a stick-to-itiveness that vaults the line into obsession. They’re willing to give up opportunities and happiness most of us take for granted in pursuit of what they want. And the painful truth is, for every José Hernández out there who gets a feature film made about him, there are probably a thousand others who also sacrificed who didn’t reach their stars.
Director Alejandra Márquez Abella, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bettina Gilois and Hernán Jiménez, based on Hernandez’ book, aims for straightforward warm feelings in between sequences of strife and turbulence. It’s also an unabashed celebration of Mexican culture — the music, the food, the colors, the language, the cars, and especially the familial bonds that form the root system of the immigrant community.
The story follows a mostly linear arc, beginning with his childhood in and around Stockton, Calif., where José and his family worked as itinerant workers picking crops, going where the work took them.
They also spent half the year in the family’s native Mexico, and the movie shows how tough it was on José having to move from school to school, barely speaking English until about age 10. (Juan Pablo Monterrubio plays Jose as a child.) One teacher, Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec) takes an interest in the smart, shy boy and encourages him that his fantasy about becoming an astronaut doesn’t need to remain a daydream.
Things pick up in the mid-1980s after José graduates from college with an engineering degree and gets a job with a space rocket lab that works closely with NASA. He soon meets Adela (Rosa Salazar), a saleswoman at a car dealership, and their tentative romance — challenged by a traditional father who insists all meetings take place under supervision inside the family home — is sweet and heartwarming.
I’ll pause here to say that, at age 47, Peña is a bit long in the tooth to play a character in his early 20s, but Hollywood lighting and makeup do their thing and the depiction is not too jarring. Time slips soon take us into the 1990s and early 2000s anyway, as José applies for the NASA astronaut program year after year, rejected every time.
During his trials José follows the teachings of his father (Julio Cesar Cedillo), encapsulated in five lessons he describes as ingredients to success. Find your goal. Know how far you are. Draw a roadmap. What you don’t know, learn. And even when you think you’ve made it, you probably have to work even harder.
One of the running subtexts of the story is how José straddles his Mexican-American community and the mostly white, horn-rimmed glasses culture of the space lab and NASA. He trades in his pinstriped Chevy Impala for a more suitable (read: boring) car, and finally lets the secretary know he is not the new janitor as she’d assumed. After being relegated to copy machine duty, he finally shows his stuff and starts moving up the ladder.
At the same time, he often feels disconnected from his roots and is viewed as an outsider by people like his cousin, Beto (Bobby Soto), who never left the fields.
In one clever sequence, José talks with Adela about his dream of becoming an astronaut, which she had literally laughed off as a joke during their courtship. He discusses all the things he’ll have to do to get there: train physically, become a pilot, learn to dive, even volunteer for a long stint in Russia and learn the language. It’ll take time, money and long separations from his family that will wear on their relationship.
A long montage shows him doing all these things, and then cuts back to them having this talk at the outset. It’s a great way of condensing this journey for screen time while still lending the emotional weight of it.
The last act follows José finally making it to NASA, where his challenges only seem to mount as he struggles during the grueling training. Garret Dillahunt and Sarayu Blue plays veteran astronauts who both challenge and encourage him. A tragedy occurs that seems like like it might put the final kibosh on José’s dream.
But you know how it ends…
Peña gives a solid, earnest performance as José, portraying him as a somewhat introverted guy who is almost apologetic for having such huge goals in life. His character’s humility is contrasted with a mountainous sense of stubborn pride, a guy who’s been told he’ll never amount to more than another back bending over to pick corn and beans.
Instead, he stuck his chin up and looked to the sky.
“A Million Miles Away” has a familiar trajectory: the story of someone who aims high and stumbles and strives to get there. What it lacks in original fire it makes up for in an authentic embrace of what it really means to give something everything you’ve got.
The film debuts on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 15.