2019 AFI FEST: Director Alice Winocour’s “Proxima” is less concerned about having its female protagonist sort out her existence through dire circumstances than it is about capturing a compelling story about the lines drawn between a mother’s role and her career goals. This intimate mother-daughter drama sets itself apart from space-centered films from this year (like “Ad Astra” and “Lucy In The Sky”) and those from past years (like “Gravity” and “2001:A Space Odyssey”) by establishing a different tone and theme. Winocour and her fellow screenplay collaborators Jean-Stéphane Bron, Marcia Romano and Nynne Oldenburg deliver nuanced, profound commentary, co-mingling concepts on identity, motherhood and the pursuit of heroism.
French astronaut Sarah (Eva Green) has been prepping her young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant) for an elongated split upon being assigned the Proxima Mission to Mars. She’s mapped out the route and gone over the procedures with Stella in hopes of bringing her comfort and peace during their separation. However, their routine exercise might be more for the benefit of Sarah than for Stella.
Sarah’s headstrong tot and their orange tabby Laika will be left in the care of her astrophysicist ex-husband Thomas (Lars Eidinger) in Germany as she trains in Russia for her year-long spaceflight departing in Kazakhstan. She’ll be allowed phone calls and in-person visits with Stella, but supervised by ESA’s child psychologist Wendy (Sandra Hüller). Sarah’s patience and determination are tested when she arrives in Star City (the filmmakers used the real facility for atmosphere and accuracy) and is forced to battle not only the misogyny of her all-male crew, U.S. astronaut Mike (Matt Dillon) and Russian cosmonaut Anton (Alexei Fateev), but also the whole program’s latent sexism.
Yet Sarah is unwavering in her objective. She sustains both her job requirements and her role as a nurturer to Stella, who begins struggling with abandonment issues. Winocour makes this connection by layering audio of their FaceTime conversations, where Sarah consoles Stella, over imagery of Sarah working. Later, there’s an interesting contrast when moody mom and distanced daughter chat. Their divide is shown through images of a cold, empty playground representing a freeze taking hold of their relationship. Interwoven motifs of wild horses parallel Sarah and Stella’s wild spirits, making that connection between mother and child even more elusive.
It’s a pleasant, revelatory surprise that none of the things we’d expect to happen actually do. In lesser hands, Wendy – whose job it is not to interfere, but provide advice and assistance – would likely have threatened Sarah for contrived reasons to stir artificial drama. She doesn’t. She’s empathetic to Sarah’s predicament. Though Winocour walks a fine line during some moments, she doesn’t judge Sarah for leaving. She’d rather keep the conflict directed inward, exploring the psyche of a female astronaut by asking insightful questions like what drives them to do what they do while also paying loving respect to real-life women who juggle family and career. Mike’s given a more dynamic arc than anticipated, morphing from an arrogant Ugly American stereotype into a layered person. Plus, it’s a blessing that there’s no forced romantic interest between the two colleagues. And why should there be, since this is a mother-daughter love story.
That said, the filmmakers occasionally go a little too broad, bordering on hammy, in order to make their points. The genesis of Sarah’s Something-To-Prove external conflict is contrived, not organic as one would hope. Though it leads to a satisfying conclusion, Stella inevitably missing a crucial visit with Sarah is manufactured for the sake of dramatic stakes. The metaphorical context of Sarah’s infected wound is understood instantly because of its story placement, but it blindsides us and has no further meaning.
“Proxima” soars highest when it espouses meaningful sentiments on the physiological and psychological toll a demanding job can take on domestic life. It also finds towering strength in small grace notes, whether they be Ryuichi Sakamoto’s sparse score that fills in the gaps, complementing our heroine’s drive, or the overlapping images of the duo’s faces reflected in a glass divide, emphasizing Sarah and Stella’s eternal connection. Coupled with introspective performances from Green and Boulant that shake the soul, Winocour’s feature follows the advice of Theodore Roosevelt – it keeps its eyes on the stars and its feet on the ground.