The prospect of leaving Earth for good does not scare Alex (Kyle Allen). Instead, it inspires him. It’s not that he doesn’t cherish his mother, his father and his sister. They’re as close as a family can be. Nor that he is at all hopeless about the state of the world. Though he’ll admit it’s hard to plan a future on a planet that seems to have none. In his mind, Alex’s decision to embark on a possible (one way!) mission to Mars is a chance to start anew, to dream anew.
The conceit is a neat one, and as Kyra Sedgwick’s feature film directorial debut unfolds, it actually feels quite generative. Who among us wouldn’t also wish to leave everything behind and go on our interplanetary adventure? But that is all this is, a conceit. For “Space Oddity” wants to firmly ground itself on Earth, in the messy relationships we build and the uncomfortable truths we’d rather not voice.
If the film never quite finds a way to marry its high concept premise, its twee romance, and its family melodrama into one cohesive narrative, it is not for lack of trying. After all, there are bound to be plenty of viewers who’ll be delighted to find such sunny optimism wrapped up in a warm-hearted ode to what it means to live in this planet we call home. That is, assuming they accept the prospect of a mission to Mars that would recruit (over Skype, no less!) a young man whose family owns a flower farm and who finds that all he needs to begin training is a physical from his old childhood pediatrician.
Alex’s father, Jeff (Kevin Bacon), has stopped trying to get it through to Alex how implausible this all sounds. But that’s nothing compared to the sheer talking-to he gets from his sister, Liz (Madeline Brewer), a high-powered executive who’s left behind her parents’ farm in search of greener pastures, Liz is drawn into Alex’s orbit as she takes on the role of his personal publicist, a way to make sure he doesn’t embarrass the family as he pursues his harebrained dream of going to Mars. It’s only his mother, Jane (Carrie Preston, always a delight), who wholeheartedly supports him, even when it finally dawns on her that his decision to head to Mars is grounded on is a desire to leave them all behind — especially the memory of the one member of the McAllister family none dare speak about at length.
”Space Oddity” uses all that family concern as mere backdrop. In a way, the film ends up being a tender romance between Alex and Daisy (a charming Alexandra Shipp), the new-to-town insurance agent tasked with helping Alex sort out his paperwork before he departs. The family trauma that has so paralyzed each of the McAllisters hovers always at the edges of everyone’s interactions (and thus becomes an inevitable bombshell of a plot reveal that can’t help but feel manipulative), but that doesn’t stop Alex from slowly becoming ever more interested in the beautiful young woman who is also hiding and escaping from a part of her life she had to leave behind. Can Alex let go of his dream to become a pioneer on Mars and grow roots on Earth, instead? Can the McAllisters find a way to heal the pain they’re nursing after the loss that continues to haunt them all?
With a more than capable ensemble — Preston and Brewer in particular give the McAllister women much welcome nuance even in hushed silences — Sedgwick can often conjure quite emotionally potent moments from her actors. Indeed, the one-on-one interactions between Alex and Daisy, contrived and cloying as they sometimes feel (a date gets dashed by the rain! a first aid lesson hinges on a CPR demonstration!), are quite lovely, and the chemistry between the two leads is palpable even when the plot mechanics grind all too noisily around them.
But the all-too-twee details that end up adorning Alex’s story (like the second grade kids who pelt him with marshmallows), not to mention the needlessly broad comedy that sometimes frames it (like Simon Helberg’s distracting, Russian-accented Dimitri), and you find the film’s tone ends up landing all over the place. Neither swoon-worthy romance nor gripping family drama but something somewhere in between — with a sprinkling of lo-fi sci-fi mixed in for good measure — “Space Oddity” is perhaps all too aptly titled. While there are sure to be those charmed by its actors and by its unabashedly sweet disposition, Sedgwick’s piece is ultimately too baggy to truly soar.