It’s the ’50s, America’s quintessential coming-of-age decade, and Homer Hickam desperately needs cause to rebel. October Sky’s protagonist lives in a West Virginia company town, and the only thing that stands between him and a life of mining coal is high school. The mine is good enough for Homer’s dada righteous, heroic leader of men, if a bit hideboundso it should be good enough for his son. Alas, the vaguely discontented Homer doesn’t have any other future in mind. Then, one October night, he sees Sputnik shooting through the Appalachian night.
Adapted from NASA engineer Hickam’s memoir by director Joe Johnston and screenwriter Lewis Colick, October Sky is billed as being “from the producer of Field of Dreams.” There’s more to the connection than an advertising tag line: Both films feature a strained father-son relationship, nostalgia for a simpler America, and truckloads of uplift. Like so many tracts that exalt the ’50s, the two movies also have a fascist subtext: Whereas parts of Field of Dreams suggested the work of an American Leni Riefenstahl, October Sky takes as its patron saint Werner von Braun.
That discordant note aside, the movie is a competent genre exercisefunny, warm, and earnest, if as formulaic as the soundtrack’s mix of rock-‘n’-roll oldies and reach-for-the-stars orchestral flourishes. Possessed by a great passion for the time in his life, Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly has the guts to stand up to his gruff but well-meaning father (John Sayles stalwart Chris Cooper) and break the high school social code by befriending science prodigy Quentin (Chris Owen), who is both geeky and poor. Bringing his longtime friends Roy Lee (William Lee Scott) and O’Dell (Chad Lindberg) along for the ride, Homer establishes Cape Coalwood, named for the town from which his experiments are quickly banned by his dad. From their new command post, the boys attempt to launch small rockets whose skyward trajectory exemplifies theirand America’shopes.
Dad is not the only local authority figure opposed to the extracurricular activities of the four “rocket boys.” The high school principal believes the experiments will only give the mine-bound kids “false hopes,” and the local cops take Homer and friends away in handcuffs after accusing them of launching a rocket that caused a forest fire. The town’s oppressed minorities, however, encourage the boys: Homer’s mom (Natalie Canerday) and teacher (Laura Dern) stand up for the aspiring space explorers, while an Eastern European immigrant welder and an African-American machinist help the boys refine their rockets.
October Sky hefts just about as much trauma as a PG-rated crowd-pleaser can bear. Johnston and Colick stage a miners’ strike, orchestrate several cave-ins, arrange a little science-project sabotage, and even give one of the supporting characters a wasting disease. In form, though, this is a sports movie, and thus there’s never any possibility that the underdogs won’t wineven if the crucial playing ground is a national science fair rather than the regional playoffs. Johnston (whose kid-fantasy-oriented résumé includes Jumanji and The Pagemaster) presents a montage of abortive rocket launches to the tune of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” but when a crowd finally gathers to watch a rocket test, it’s musically preordained that this liftoff will succeed: Mark Isham’s score has already started to swell optimistically before the countdown begins.
Somewhere in Hollywood it’s always the ’50s, and Hickam’s memoir well suits the major studios’ enthusiasm for stories about youthful dreamers untainted by ’60s radicalism, ’70s sexual liberation, or ’80s greed. Still, Homer is thrilled to receive an autographed picture from Werner von Braun, and any movie that unapologetically presents the architect of the V-2 rocket as its hero’s hero has set the moral Way Back Machine for unsavory territory. October Sky ends with home-movie footage of the real-life counterparts of its major characters, but somehow the filmmakers neglected to include any of the much-seen but still-horrific images of piles of emaciated corpses recorded by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in April 1945. That footage was shot at Nordhausen, where at least 20,000 slave laborers died building Werner von Braun’s rockets.
Like She’s All That, its slightly smarter and significantly less homicidal cousin, Jawbreaker is not set in the ’50s. You can tell because ’90s songs dominate the soundtrack, the kids swear like steelworkers, and many of the girls dress like hookers. Yet both movies turn on the election of a California high school’s prom queen, a subject that seems at least as archaic as Sputnik. While Jawbreaker’s scenario combines elements of Heathers and Very Bad Things, its basic worldview has progressed little beyond American Bandstand.
The premise of writer-director Darren Stein’s film is that murder leads to makeover: Three of the ruling goddesses at Reagan High, cruel Courtney (Rose McGowan), dim Marcie (Julie Benz), and empathetic Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), kidnap the fourth member of their clique, gentle Liz Purr (Charlotte Roldan), on her 17th birthday. It’s just a gag, but Courtney goes too far when she stuffs a large jawbreaker in Liz’s mouth and shoves her in the trunk of her car. Liz chokes to death, and her three friends have to decide what to do with the corpse. As they discuss their options, they’re overheard by Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), the school’s dweebiest girl. To ensure her silence, Courtney turns mousy Fern into blond knockout Vylette. When Vylette joins the elite, however, guilt-riven Julie resigns.
Courtney concocts an elaborate scheme to convince homicide detective Vera Cruz (Pam Grier) that Liz was raped and killed by a guy she picked up in a bar. Anyone who’s ever watched Court TV, however, will realize that Courtney’s tale lacks some crucial physical corroboration. Besides, as first Julie and then Vylette fall out with Courtney, it’s only a matter of time before the latter’s machinations are exposed. And what better occasion than the prom, which has apparently been restored (at least in Hollywood) to its ’50s status as the apogee of teenage existence?
Unlike many contemporary first-time directors, Stein didn’t start by making music videos. Still, Jawbreaker introduces a new song almost every time it shifts scenes, and the movie includes several arty montages that seem designed to conceal rather than advance the plot. Stein ornaments his meager story with Frederick’s of Hollywood fashion; semi-radical-chic references to “kinky” (that is, gay) sex; a cameo by McGowan’s boyfriend, Marilyn Manson; and several homages to Rock ‘n’ Roll High School: The star of that film, P.J. Soles, plays Liz’s mother, and the prom music is provided by the Donnas, teenage California Ramones wannabes (and never-wills). Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, of course, ended with the place being burned down; Jawbreaker concludes with Reagan High Schooland the high school social structure the movie strives to mockcompletely unscathed.CP