Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff, about the origins of NASA’s Mercury space program, set the high bar for docudrama depictions of astronaut training. As much about the frontiers of man’s physical and mental limits as about the exploration of space, the film influenced a generation of filmmakers who revisited the same ground in productions like Apollo 13 and For All Mankind. Director Alice Winocour offers a contemplative and nuanced take on the subject in Proxima, while introducing a new variable to the battery of astronaut tests and trials: motherhood.

Working from a script by Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron, Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a French astronaut assigned to join a crew destined for a stint on the International Space Station. The commander of the mission, Mike Shannon, a swaggering jackass played with a smirk by Matt Dillon, publicly humiliates Sarah right off the bat by speculating about the cooking skills he imagines she’ll contribute. That gets her hackles up, and she shifts into a defensive posture that she maintains for much of the film, driven to prove her mettle and earn her position on the crew. But whatever weakness Sarah possesses doesn’t seem to do with her skills or preparation. Rather, it’s her conflicted feelings about leaving behind her young daughter, Stella (a remarkable Zélie Boulant), that seem to chip away at her resolve.

Having recently separated from Stella’s father, Sarah’s family is in a fragile state. Stella is the same age that Sarah herself was in her stories of finding inspiration in the stars, and it’s clear that she sees her daughter as a more-perfect version of herself. Is that why she’s nearly crippled with guilt and self-doubt about leaving her daughter for a yearlong mission? There’s a vagueness to Sarah’s angst that shifts the story into a slow gear for much of its runtime. Despite the implication of the title, Sarah isn’t leaving Earth on an interstellar voyage, and, as long as she survives the dangers of space travel, she’ll return to find her daughter only a year older. Some unspoken guilt seems to haunt her, however, and threatens to derail the opportunity she’s worked so hard for.

Despite the fuzzy characterization, Green’s performance is nuanced and sympathetic. She toggles effortlessly between her native French in her interactions with Stella, and English and Russian with the flight crew and engineers. The international setting is another fresh angle on the story, with scenes set at the European Astronaut Center in Germany and, most notably, at Russia’s Star City, where she undergoes her final training before liftoff in Kazakhstan. The drab facilities are time capsules of Soviet-era gloom where Sarah and her teammates endure physical trials between bouts of swilling vodka and grinning for visiting reporters. As the camaraderie of the crew grows, Commander Mike turns out to be not such a jackass after all, but the suggestion that he was only demeaning Sarah to push her to perform better registers as some gag-worthy paternalism.

The slow and deliberate pacing, cutting between scenes of training and physical exertion, leaps across days and events with an impressionistic feel. Filmed with an eye to Sarah’s psychological and emotional state, her flickers of guilt and doubt are mirrored by fear, wonder and resentment on her daughter’s face. But for all the long shots of contemplative moments in shallow focus, the film doesn’t really convey concrete reasons for Sarah’s malaise. After all, Mike is shown to have two kids of his own, and he doesn’t seem to struggle with leaving them behind. It’s only when the credits roll, intercut with still photos of real-life female astronauts and their children, that the film’s central theme becomes clear: motherhood itself. The message isn’t that women can’t compete in a dangerous and highly demanding profession. Rather, it’s that success comes with additional costs when pushing the envelope doesn’t just refer to the physical risks of space flight but to the emotional and psychological burden of leaving precious loved ones behind. For Sarah and the women who came before her, leaving Earth is no less than leaving oneself.

Summary
Director Alice Winocour offers a contemplative and nuanced take on the subject of exploring new frontiers while introducing a new variable to the battery of astronaut tests and trials: motherhood.
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Moms in Space
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