Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do
– David Bowie, “Space Oddity.”
With all the arguments about what is or isn’t the natural order, the one thing the majority can agree on is that children should outlive their parents. We can hem and haw about the rest, but there’s a universally understood pain when a child dies, even more so when they’re young. This fear is the kind that can stop you in your tracks, halt you from living, if you experience it. Life holds all the potential for loss, so it matters what you do with it. This is, to a significant degree, the central idea of Space Oddity, written by first-time feature writer Rebecca Banner and directed by Kyra Sedgwick (Girls Weekend). Faced with an incredible trauma, a family finds themselves at a crossroads, yet hope remains once they recognize that they don’t have to go it alone. For if you do, sitting in your tin can, who’s there to help if you go off course?
The McAllister Family is doing their best day-to-day. Father Jeff (Kevin Bacon) continues to run the family flower farm, mother Jane (Carrie Preston) musters whatever energy she can to create lovely bouquets from the latest crop to sell, daughter Liz (Madeline Brewer) buries herself in work at a public relations firm, and son Alex (Kyle Allen) looks to the stars, planning a trip to Mars. Though his family thinks it’s a pipedream, Alex is full-tilt focused on being a part of the first colony on Mars, spending every day immersed in physical training, studying the planet, and working on a device to help grow plants in Mars’s environment. When Alex is selected to move to the training phase of a private company’s planned mission to Mars (dubbed: Mission Mars), it seems like Alex will get everything he’s ever wanted, until a routine life insurance policy development introduces Daisy Taylor (Alexandra Shipp) to his life and suddenly he’s not sure if his future lies millions of millions away or right next to him.
Given the premise of the film, one might expect Space Oddity to be a melodrama, prone to big speeches and grand spectacle. Surprisingly, Space Oddity is far more grounded, finding humor and pain where natural, allowing the characters to live and breathe, permitting the actors to embody people versus avatars or architypes. Banner’s script is the baseline for this, providing a story and dialogue that respects both the characters’ and audiences’ intelligences. We’re told from the start what Alex wants, we’re shown his physical training regiment, and we learn of the McAllisters’s loss. Everything that follows spreads from here, meaning that while the characters in the film may not be aware that what we’re about to see stems from the loss of Tom (the presumably eldest sibling), the audience is. This means that even in the joyous moments, the audience is keyed into the sadness underneath. Some films would keep this as a secret, trying to build toward a great explosion for the sake of tension, but Space Oddity mostly shuns this, and, by doing so, allows the audience to better understand the shared trauma even as the characters themselves don’t realize it.
Space Oddity is Sedgwick’s second time directing a feature, though not her second time as a director (she’s worked on several television programs, including Brooklyn Nine-Nine (how she got permission to leave her post in Hades is beyond me)). There’s something about actors who become directors and their films. Most (not all) possess a different sensibility in terms of capturing the actors, allowing the intentionality of the characters to take precedence over camera placement. A great example of this (and of the script) comes when Daisy joins the McAllisters for dinner, the camera slowly moving around the circular table showing the six people, including Simon Helberg’s farmhand Dimitri, sharing a meal and chatting. The camera pans slowly around them, creating a sense of momentum and energy despite everyone sitting at a round table (itself denoting a sense of equality among the characters verses one with clear ends) before landing on Liz who asks Daisy a question. Here, the camera keeps moving and, even in the edit to switch perspectives as Daisy responds, the momentum continues in the same direction as before. The camera continues to move like this until Tom is brought up, upon which the camera stops and shifts to traditional cuts and still shots. Decisions like these come from someone well-versed in storytelling from the actor’s side while understanding how the camera functions to capture themes. This single scene highlights Sedgwick’s understanding via the simple mention of a name and the shifting in direction. It’s small and, likely not noticed by general audiences, yet it loudly speaks to the flow of energy within the family and how the mere mention of Tom brings it all crashing down as none have come to terms with their pain.
What brings it all together and, in some cases, elevates even the mundane, is a cast of actors with commitment to being present. Bacon’s in only a handful of scenes, but he brings a weariness to it that’s more than elder statesman material, but that of a man with the weight of feeling like a failure as a business person (his farm is threatened by ecological and financial issues) and as a father who worries as to whether his children know he loves them. Preston has a slightly larger presence, doing a great deal of work with her physicality to convey the concern and doubt that her line delivery hides. Jane’s so happy that Alex is getting out of bed with a purpose and Preston presents all the joy and concern over what that purpose is elegantly with her eyes, even as she’s smiling. Brewer is fantastic as the hard-nosed, business-minded Liz. The actor gives a character that could be played as one-note deep layers, making the initial sarcasm and inwardness an expression of Liz’s own discomfort and unaddressed trauma. Placed against Helberg’s Dimitri, Brewer is able to shed the defensive layers that come up within Liz around her family, empowering her in ways that offer real surprise. Shipp is no stranger to playing a love interest (Endless (2020); tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)), but whether it’s the typical genre role or something like Space Oddity, Shipp elevates her character by grounding it. Her delivery comes off as natural, her physicality present and in the moment, generating a sense of spontaneity which keeps each performance in any role (romantic, horror, action) feel unique. No stranger to films exploring love and loss, Allen (The Map of Tiny Perfect Things) makes the quirky Alex immediately endearing in the opening sequence where Alex practices his Mission Mars speech. He’s got this mix of straight-forward and awkward that would make more sense for a younger character, someone with limited social skills, that a neurotypical adult may have picked up. It’s mentioned once or twice that Alex isn’t typical, so it’s unclear if his delivery and mannerisms are a result of neurodivergency or trauma, but Allen’s performance ensures that neither matter in understanding what Alex wants, what he’s running from, and why he’s acting against himself. It’s a heavy load to carry and Allen succeeds in making sure that the character is never reduced before us, even when he may deserve it.
There are two messages running throughout Space Oddity and, if one isn’t careful, they’ll presume that one is less fleshed out than the other. The two are simple: one explores the trauma of loss while the other examines humanity’s failing responsibility for Earth. The second message may seem tossed in, overtly included so that Jeff can provide fatherly dialogue laced with arguments for supporting farmers or so that Alex can wail on the upcoming destruction of Earth due to humankind’s poor judgement. The truth is that the main narrative idea, that of love and loss, is directly intertwined with the second, and that the second is used as an excuse for creating distance between characters. To be clear, it’s not that Banner or Sedgwick use Earth’s failing ecosystem and rising natural disasters to create distance, it’s that the character of Alex does as a protective measure. Let’s examine this on a smaller scale: ever eaten something that didn’t agree with you? How quick were you to try it again? In Space Oddity, Alex’s desire to leave Earth behind is all about creating as much distance between himself and his pain, a pain he feels is too great to face alone. Just as one might develop or conceive of reasons why not to eat the stomach-churning food or go on that vertigo-inducing ride, so does Alex accept reasons to leave the planet and all he loves behind. This doesn’t displace or misuse the environmental aspects, but makes them signify the loss the McAllister Family has already experienced. From this view, why would someone want to stay on a doomed planet if they knew there was a way off, no matter how tenuous the prospect might be? The script nor the performance from Allen beats the audience over the head with this idea, allowing it to germinate as tensions rise and fall throughout the story.
It’s easy to downplay a film like Space Oddity given the prominent greenery and gentle scoring offered by cinematographer Alar Kivilo (The Broken Hearts Gallery) and composers Travis Bacon (Girls Weekend) and Scott Hedrick (Every Last One of Them). Fans of Heart and Souls (1993), for instance, will delight in seeing Alfre Woodward appear in a small role as a local pediatrician. But don’t mistake familiarity or comfort for gentleness or nonchalance. Space Oddity succeeds because it feels comfortable and natural, enabling the audience to better absorb the message within: trauma cannot be healed without facing it; facing it doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. By wrapping the narrative with familiar faces, there’s a reduction in friction within the audience, making them more receptive to the tale Sedgwick and Banner seek to tell. Head the warning of Space Oddity and don’t end up travelling in a tin can all alone out in the loneliness of space. Take care of yourself, take care of your family, and take care of Earth: don’t run from the responsibility.
Screening during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Space Oddity Tribeca film page.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.