[Screen It]


(1999) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper) (PG)

Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Tense Scenes
Mild Minor Heavy Minor Mild
Moderate None None None Mild
Smoking Tense Family
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Drama: A West Virginia teenager hopes to break free from his predetermined coal miner's life by winning a national science fair competition with his rocket building designs.
In 1957 Coalwood, West Virginia, the coal mine is the town's largest employer and most every male living there works, or will work, in the mines. John Hickam (CHRIS COOPER), the mine superintendent, loves his job -- despite its headaches and inherent dangers -- and hopes that his boys, Jim (SCOTT THOMAS) and Homer (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), will one day join him working there.

When it appears that Jim will receive a football scholarship to attend college, however, that leaves Homer to fulfill his father's dream, although the boys' mother, Elsie (NATALIE CANERDAY), hopes for more for her son. It's not long before a prominent event gives him that chance.

As the townspeople gather outside one starry October night, they see the Soviet satellite Sputnik race across the sky. Filled with awe and a belief that this may be his ticket out of Coalwood, Homer sets out to build rockets of his own and enter the space race.

Of course, most everyone thinks he's crazy, especially when he teams up with Quentin (CHRIS OWEN), the school math geek who happens to know a thing or two about rocket science. With the aid of friends Roy Lee (WILLIAM LEE SCOTT) and Odell (CHAD LINDBERG), however, the foursome begins experimenting with their new passion.

With the help and encouragement of some local townsfolk and their science teacher, Miss Riley (LAURA DERN), who hopes that Homer and his friends will enter their work in a science fair contest, the boys begin their tests, but quickly run into several obstacles. First, they don't really know what they're doing, their tests are initially disastrous and they eventually get themselves into hot water with the local authorities. That, coupled with John not understanding nor supporting his son's "hobby," soon derails the "rocket boys" dreams.

From that point on, and contending with the many obstacles that face them, Homer and his pals set out to prove that they can build a rocket that will soar unimpeded into the sky, proving that they have what it takes to leave the confines of their predetermined, coal miner lives.

Although there's little "star power" here to draw in the kids, those with an interest in the space program, as well as any who've heard about this "feel good" movie may want to see it.
For language, brief teen sensuality and alcohol use, and for some thematic elements.
  • JAKE GYLLENHAAL plays the young man who dreams of escaping his predetermined life in a coal mining town. While his "borrowing" of materials and the actual rocket building itself may prove to be imitative to some kids, his brains over brawn and overall persistent commitment make him a good role model for kids.
  • CHRIS COOPER plays Homer's father, a dedicated but stubborn man who believes his son should follow in his footsteps. As such, he doesn't support Homer's passions and tries to squelch his new "hobby."
  • CHRIS OWEN plays the "school geek" whose intelligence enables Homer's dream to come to life.
  • WILLIAM LEE SCOTT and CHAD LINDBERG play Homer's friends who help him with his rocket building plans, but their characters aren't really developed much beyond being just friends.


    OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
    With the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the great space race that dominated the 1960's and beyond began. Not only did that tiny satellite strike fear into many Americans' hearts, but it also motivated President Kennedy and NASA to reach the moon first, thus paving the way for the heroics of legendary astronauts such as John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, just to name a few.

    It also motivated many people who went on to be the unseen heroes of the NASA program -- those who worked behind the scenes to get those astronauts and their rockets into space -- and the wonderful, "feel good" film, "October Sky," tells the true-life story of one of them.

    It's of no surprise that the story of Homer Hickam eventually made it to the silver screen. The tale of a young man with a big dream, it's filled with obstacles and setbacks that impede our hero's quest and are the makings for good, big screen drama. To top it off, it's set in the "can do" era of the late 1950's and 60's that permeated the American spirit and subsequently made films like "Apollo 13" such popular and sentimental favorites among moviegoers.

    Although this smaller scale film lacks the star power and grandiose setting of that fabulous Ron Howard picture, it's just as pleasing and should catch a good ride from the positive word of mouth that will surely follow its release.

    Based on Hickam's autobiography, the film follows the well-traveled, but still effective plot of a young man who wishes to break free from his seemingly predetermined life. While it's not readily apparent how much artistic license and subsequent dramatic enhancement director Joe Johnston ("Jumanji," "The Rocketeer") and screenwriter Lewis Colick ("The Ghosts of Mississippi") have taken with Hickam's story, the plot -- despite its general familiarity -- works quite well.

    Perfectly balancing the boyhood and blooming scientific exuberance of that era with the timeless father/son relationship struggles, the story successfully unfolds on several levels. Despite the standard-issue, dramatic arc that dips into times filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and setbacks, there's little doubt it will bounce back as the film can't help but exude that "feel good" atmosphere that makes it a surefire audience pleaser.

    From the fun and amusing montage sequences of the boys unsuccessfully trying to launch their rockets (set to the obligatory, but still enjoyable 50's soundtrack), to their teacher's encouragement and the inevitable, lump in your throat finale, the film has all of "the right stuff" to nicely complement its bigger budget Hollywood cousins that have dealt in one way or another with NASA's early efforts.

    The performances are solid across the board. While there's no Tom Hanks or Ed Harris to carry the picture, the lack of well-known performers actually works to the film's benefit. Keeping the proceedings on a small scale, the talented but lesser known cast doesn't get in the way of the storytelling. Instead, they deliver believable performances that perfectly fit into the film's overall delivery.

    Leading the way is Jake Gyllenhaal ("City Slickers," "A Dangerous Woman") as the young man who continually bumps his head into the town's artificially constrictive ceiling. Despite not being the teen heartthrob guaranteed to pack in the teenage crowed, Gyllenhaal delivers a fine and completely believable performance. In doing so, he quickly garners and then holds the audience's collective sympathy throughout.

    While Chris Cooper ("The Horse Whisperer") and his stubborn and dedicated character will most likely elicit the polar opposite response, he likewise delivers a good performance. Epitomizing the father figure most every adolescent has had to deal with at one time or another in their lives, Cooper gives a head on take as the tough parent who, despite all outward behavior to the contrary, really wishes the best for his kids. Although his character borders on a cliché, Cooper gives that extra effort that makes him believable.

    Supporting performances from the likes of William Lee Scott ("The Opposite of Sex"), Chris Owen ("Can't Hardly Wait), and Chad Lindberg ("Mercury Rising") are all decent, but their characters aren't developed nor explored enough to truly make them as good as they should be.

    A small part by Laura Dern ("Jurassic Park") as their caring and enthusiastic teacher, however, is quite good despite a sad, but true turn of events that seems out of place simply due to its gravity and lack of proper screen time to address such an issue.

    Although some may complain that the film's plot is too familiar (the small town kid trying to break free from the societal confines, and in particular, his father, that are smothering him), the fact that it's based on a true story -- any artistic license taken aside -- and the overall competent and uplifting dramatic elements in it make the picture a winner. We give this emotionally satisfying and entertaining film an 8 out of 10.

    Here's a quick summary of the content found in this PG-rated film. Profanity is mild for the use of 2 "s" words, a variety of others, as well as some religious and otherwise colorful phrases. A brief sexually related comment is made, one of the boys gives a demonstration of how to feel a girl's breast during a movie (using another guy), and we see a boy and girl together in a parked car where nothing but talking occurs (although the windows are steamed up). A very brief scene suggests that the boys have partaken in some moonshine.

    For those concerned with their kids imitating what they see, this movie's rocket building and testing, as well as the "borrowing" of materials for that may spur some kids to do the same. Some bad attitudes abound -- particularly concerning John's behavior toward Homer and his dreams -- and some thematic elements (including one of the boy's having an abusive and alcoholic stepfather, as well as that of several coal mining accidents, one resulting in a miner who's killed) may be a bit heavy for younger viewers.

    Beyond that, however, the rest of the film's categories have little or no major objectionable content. Nonetheless, should you still be concerned about the films' appropriateness, we suggest that you take a closer look at what's been listed.

  • The boys figure out that they need pure alcohol for their rocket, and we then later see them walking out of a shack with a bottle of moonshine. Based on their laughter and brief behavior, it's suggested that they had some for themselves.
  • Although we don't see him drinking, we learn that Odell's briefly seen stepfather is an alcoholic.
  • John drinks what may be a beer (positively identifying it was difficult) that he retrieves from the fridge.
  • We briefly see a dead man on a stretcher (but other than being dead and covered with coal dust, the body isn't bloody).
  • John has some of both toward Homer for not encouraging nor participating in his son's dreams, and for often actively trying to squash them (although he comes around in the end).
  • Jim makes fun of or is demeaning to Homer, commenting in one scene, "If you had half a brain in your head..."
  • The guys steal materials from local businesses (they call it the "generosity" of those stores) as well as old railroad tracks to either make their equipment/launch pad structures, or to sell them for money.
  • Odell's stepfather has both for beating the boy.
  • Someone takes a shot at John (over union matters).
  • We see that someone has stolen Homer's science fair materials.
  • The shots of injured or dead miners and the brief moments dealing with coal mine cave-ins, etc... may be a bit unsettling for some viewers.
  • There's a fun "suspenseful" scene where the boys, upon hearing an approaching train, race to put a railroad track back in place and then to stop the train from approaching the now broken track.
  • Someone takes a shot at John through a window in their home (in a very short scene).
  • Rifle: Used by Roy Lee to shoot his now dead truck.
  • Unseen gun: Used to shoot through a window at John.
  • Phrases: "Holy sh*t," "That's what burns my ass," "Shut up," "Screw you," "Bastard," and "Give 'em hell."
  • Some kids may be inspired to attempt to build their own rockets at home (and/or mix chemicals with explosive results).
  • Students teasingly throw balled up paper at Quentin in class.
  • One of the boys repeatedly shoots his now dead truck with a rifle.
  • The guys steal materials from local businesses (they call it the "generosity" of those stores) as well as old railroad tracks to either make their equipment/launch pad structures, or to sell them for money.
  • Thinking their project is forever done, the boys light what's essentially a Molotov cocktail and use it to burn down their observation shack.
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 2 "s" words, 12 damns, 10 hells, 7 S.O.B.'s, 2 asses, and 1 use each of "G-damn," "God," "Jesus," "Swear to God" and "For God's sakes."
  • One of the boys demonstrates to the others (on another boy) of how to slowly move one's arm around a girl during a movie so that he can eventually feel her breast.
  • One of the guys comments (about the rocket), "That thing better fly or you can kiss your chances of losing your virginity good-bye."
  • We see Homer and a girl in the backseat of a parked car, but other than some steamed up windows, we don't see them doing anything other than talking (and they're then interrupted and he leaves).
  • A woman on the street smokes.
  • Homer is upset that his father likes the mine and his athletic brother better than him, and the two (Homer and his dad) occasionally come to verbal blows over Homer's future.
  • We learn that Odell's father was killed in a coal mine, and that his stepfather is an abusive alcoholic (we later see the stepfather roughing up the boy in a street corner).
  • The space race that began with the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite.
  • Following and actively pursuing one's dreams, no matter what the obstacles.
  • That the boys are using their brains, and not brawn or other skills to succeed.
  • Hodgkin's Disease -- we learn that one of the characters has it.
  • Exploding or misfiring test rockets knock the boys down, blow up a fence, and nearly hit others.
  • Roy Lee repeatedly shoots his now dead truck with a rifle.
  • Odell and Homer struggle on the ground.
  • We see Odell's stepfather beating him in a street corner, and John confronts and threatens the man, telling him never to touch the boy again.
  • Thinking their project is forever done, the boys light what's essentially a Molotov cocktail and use it to burn down their observation shack.
  • We see that a coal miner was killed in an accident (we see his body carried out on a stretcher) and that John was injured.
  • Someone takes a shot at John through a window in their home (but no one is hurt).

  • Reviewed January 20, 1999 / Posted on February 19, 1999

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