Once upon a time there was a farmer who wanted to build a rocket ship and orbit the earth. And there were some evil ogres who wanted to stop him.
That’s the best way to describe this slight fairy tale of a film, where each shot is lovingly framed to show the golden light playing over the pastoral landscapes, set in a small town that makes Mayberry seem unfriendly and featuring a family so unconditionally loving and devoted that we seem to have come upon them mid-Hallmark commercial.
That is not to say that it is anything but warm-hearted and captivating. It is just to say that you can’t take it too seriously. In other words, don’t try this at home.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a farmer actually named Farmer. That is his last name and many people call him that, including his wife Audie (Virginia Madsen). He rides a horse in his astronaut uniform — the ultimate mash-up of American male icons. When he gets up to a small bit of vandalism he is sent for a psychological evaluation — to the local school nurse, who was once his prom date. Everyone in the town knows everyone else and knows everything about everyone else. But even his good friend at the bank can’t stop foreclosure proceedings when Farmer spends all his money on the rocket. And when he orders rocket fuel over the internet, he attracts the attention of some people outside the community. They are people from places that are very big on initials, like NASA and DOJ and WMD. They are people who are very big on laws like the Patriot Act. And they are people who have no imagination and no sense of humor when it comes to having private citizens launch rockets.
The good guys are cute and cuddly and believe in their dreams. They have family dinners where everyone talks about what should be packed for the mission. The children are devoted to their parents and have beautiful manners. The two little girls (real-life daughters of the twin brothers who made the film) are the most natural and appealing young performers since “In America.” Virginia Madsen is radiant as always as Mrs. Farmer. And there’s an adorably grizzled old grandpa (Bruce Dern) to tell Farmer what a great dad he is.
It works because of the conviction of its actors (including a surprise third act appearance by a major movie star) and its gentle, unassuming Capra-esque air. Its takeoff and flight is more butterfly than rocketship, but it’s a lovely ride.
Parents should know that there are some tense and scary moments. A character is in peril and is injured. There is a sad death. Characters use brief strong language and drink and there is a brief sexual reference.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Farmer’s dream was so important to him and why his family supported him. Why didn’t he accept the offer to go in NASA’s space shuttle? Was the government right to try to stop him? Why?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy films about the U.S. space program, including Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon and The Right Stuff. And they might enjoy the made-for-television movie “Salvage 1” with Andy Griffith, which became a series.