It’s not a genre that I necessarily seek out, but there is something about the world of the ‘space movie’ that always manages to tempt me back in for one reason or another. I wouldn’t proclaim to be a sci-fi expert by any means, but some of my most memorable cinema experiences over the last few years have included things like The Martian, Arrival and First Man (which I’m still shocked didn’t even garner a Best Director nomination). Alice Winocour’s Proxima was slated to be the film that reopened cinemas across the world this July, but my local isn’t quite there yet so once again I’ve settled for an at home release.
Proxima tells the story of Sarah (Eva Green), a French astronaut who is preparing for her first mission to the International Space Station whilst at the same time trying to navigate the scary and potentially traumatic effects that leaving earth is going to have on her young daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle). Interestingly, the film is essentially a space movie that doesn’t feature any space, as all of the action takes place in the build up to takeoff, very much on terra firma and very much with a family drama sensibility rather than a science fiction one.
For some genre loving viewers, this might prove to be a bridge too far, but for me, it proved to be a really interesting and different take, adding another layer to the already well established ‘space mission’ narrative that we have seen countless times before. I can probably list on one hand the space centric films whose protagonists are female, and that list becomes even smaller with the added criteria of the main focus being that of a mother/daughter relationship.
Sarah is set to leave the earth for an entire year, and in the middle of this of ground breaking mission is the fact of her daughter, struggling at school, clearly conflicted and scared about what might happen to her mother. The set up makes for the exploration of some really interesting themes like a mother’s place within space exploration, split loyalties, parental sacrifice and the wider notion of just how much you would be willing to miss in order to fulfil a lifelong dream.
As I alluded to above, this is very much a space movie with no space. Whether due to budget constraints or simply a filmmaking choice, the audience are told, but not shown, on many occasions. I tend to think it was probably a bit of both, but if you can immerse yourself in the point of view of Sarah’s daughter, then it makes sense that the reality of outer space remains this sort of out of reach, mysterious thing. Proxima isn’t the most exciting or thrilling movie, but for the most part it does feel thematically rich and poignant. A solid mother/daughter drama in a completely different, interesting setting.
I take the chance to see Eva Green whenever I get it, and she is as enigmatic and interesting as ever as Sarah. Effortlessly performing in French, English, German and Russian at different points in the film, Green is just so impressive and most importantly believable as an intelligent woman who has earned her place on this historic space mission. She really effectively portrays the conflict in her character, of wanting to excel just like ‘one of the boys’ but still being painfully aware of the effect her dreams might be having on her family. Eva Green is the kind of actress that you simply cannot take your eyes off, she tends to be excellent even when her material isn’t great, but thankfully it’s an added bonus that the material is generally good here.
The rest of the film boasts a very small and contained supporting cast, with little Zélie Boulant-Lemesle doing a fine job as daughter Stella. It’s not one of the most striking child performances I’ve seen recently, but she definitely does a good job of expressing that combination of worry, quiet frustration and understandable occasional selfishness that any child whose mother is disappearing for twelve months would express. Together, the pair really do feel like mother and daughter, something that so many dramas fail to get right in casting.
Most prominent among the rest is Matt Dillon as American astronaut Mike. Initially dismissive of Sarah’s skills, the pair eventually come to form a pleasing bond as both friends and colleagues. Dillon is great doing both the arrogant jock thing and the more sensitive, comrade thing, and he puts both sides of himself to good use here.
Overall, Proxima isn’t the kind of sci-fi or space exploration movie that is going to have in awe of the glory of the universe. It certainly doesn’t boast the grand scale of something like Interstellar or the tense, detailed action of something like Ad Astra, but what it does do is give you a whole new angle on the complexities of a mother/daughter relationship narrative. Really poignantly capped off with a montage of prominent real life female astronauts with their children, it’s an effective drama that gives an insight into an area of the whole ‘space experience’ that has been very underrepresented in science-fiction up to now. Not a future classic, but certainly an interesting watch.