Barely more than half a century into our adventures in space travel, we already have a mythology of astronauts. Of male astronauts. Rocket Man and Major Tom and Neil Armstrong and The Martian’s Mark Watney. Where are the women? Where are the men who care about their kids? There have been tons of women astronauts, and tons of astronauts of all genders who are parents, and yet we have, culturally, said almost nothing about astronauts’ relationships with the children they leave behind. (“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” Rocket Man? “There’s no one there to raise them, if you did”? You’re fucking there, dude. C’mon.)
So I love Proxima for bringing a new humanity — an almost fundamental humanity — to the story of those who risk so much and embrace great dangers in order to advance human knowledge, and the dichotomy of doing so while also risking their relationships with their children. Eva Green (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Salvation) is immense as Sarah Loreau, a French engineer training at the European Space Agency for an upcoming mission who gets an unexpected bump up to the about-to-launch Promixa, a year-long mission to the International Space Station that is the final stepping stone to the mission after that: the first Mars landing. The work is grueling and remote — final preparations and quarantine are at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan — and single-mom Sarah already had so little time to spend with her seven-year-old daughter, the charmingly named Stella (Zélie Boulant). Stella will have a loving home with her father (Lars Eidinger: Dumbo, Personal Shopper), Mom’s ex, while Sarah is away — he’s a space scientist as well, even if his work keeps him on solid ground. But Sarah hasn’t even left Earth yet, and the strain on mother and daughter is already profound.
This is near-future stuff, but it’s not science fiction. Sarah may be getting ready to blast off, but director and cowriter (with Jean-Stéphane Bron) Alice Winocour is entirely grounded in all senses of the word: the mundanity of the rigor of the astronaut training is on the same par with the tedium of the sexism Sarah, the only woman on the crew, faces, especially from Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon: Going in Style, The Art of the Steal), the American commander of the international mission. But just because it’s all routine doesn’t mean it’s not engrossing in its own quiet way. Winocour’s compassion for Sarah, who has so many extra hurdles to leap than her male colleagues do, is achingly acute. Green brings the same calm grit to Sarah whether she’s facing Stella’s tantrums (or her ex’s!), vomit-inducing astronaut exercises, Mike’s bullshit, or her own guilt at trying to have it all.
I love the opening sequence of the film, which is a huge fuck-you to, oh, all the male-centered adventure stories ever. Cuz Proxima opens with Sarah navigating, with aplomb, a gamut of astronaut tests that pop culture has trained us to see as badass… and then at the end of what is for her just a regular working day, she’s racing out to the parking lot to get in her ordinary unfancy car (no Apollo-era sportscar for her!) and get home in order to give Stella a bath and tuck her into bed. Just like any other working mom at the end of the day. Pushing the boundaries of human experience is not a thing that, for Sarah, happens outside the realm of everyday human experience.
Look: This is the work of humanity. It is the work of the world. It’s parent-teacher meetings and storytime with the kid and feeding the cat and keeping a home. Boots on Mars don’t happen without that. Yet for *checks notes* the entirety of written human history, the men who have told our stories have told only the half of it. Not even the half! Only a tiny sliver of the stuff they consider the most interesting. We should not look away from Proxima. We should not deny the essentialness of the story it tells. If you think it’s boring… If you think it’s unnecessary… then you need to take a long hard look at why you think that, and what that says about, well, absolutely everything we tell ourselves about human exploits and human life.
Proxima was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for November 6th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.