When you ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up you will often get a select group of answers. You rarely hear students saying they want to be an engineer, stockbroker, accountant, guidance counselor, or biologist. However, you frequently will get answers like ballerina, doctor, cowboy, firefighter, or astronaut. For José M. Hernández, astronaut was always in the back of his mind but as the son of Mexican migrant workers, that dream seemed very far-fetched. Spending a quarter of his year in Mexico and nine months of the year driving up and down the West Coast of The United States, he didn't have a stable home and educational life to support his dream. A Million Miles Away from Amazon Studios is his story.
José (Michael Peña; American Hustle) spent much of his childhood in cars or in the growing fields of California. His parents, and sometimes he and his siblings, were migrant workers spending nine months of the year traveling to where the work was. However, when José was in second grade his teacher urged his parents to stay in Stockton so the children could utilize their potential educationally. By that point, after watching the last US moon landing on television in 1972, José had already decided he wanted to be an astronaut.
He earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Engineering and worked at Livermore National Lab while he applied to the Astronaut program at NASA. After eleven rejections, flying lessons, scuba diving certifications, and learning Russian, he was selected for the training program in 2004. Four years later he. Was part of the team on the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station. At the launch, his second-grade teacher sat next to his parents at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as José finally realized his boyhood dream.
Casting Peña was a genius move by director Alejandra Márquez Abella (Northern Skies Over Empty Space) as this may very well be his finest performance ever. Peña is always solid whether he is doing comedy or drama but this is one of the few times he plays the lead and he portrays every emotion authentically. Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) as Adela is also excellent and the two actors have the kind of chemistry that portrays a partnership, not just a relationship. They show José and his wife are clearly a team as he strives for his dream.
Márquez Abella sets the pace early on and while the beginning of the film offers a condensed version of José's younger life, the meat of the story really starts coming in at the end of act one. As a fairly new feature film director working with a seasoned cast, she manages to pull excellent performances. The writing, however, is merely okay and rather pedestrian. Luckily, Peña, Salazar, and the rest of the cast infuse warmth and emotion into the dialogue elevating it beyond the words as they were written on the page.
A Million Miles Away is a tried and true underdog story that makes the movie appealing to an underrepresented segment of the population. It also offers some excellent life lessons that young people today could use a good dose of. José did what he had to do to realize his dream instead of expecting everything to. Be handed to him and, even after eleven rejections, he didn't give up. The film somewhat follows the standard story of "I think I can" but adds a layer of heart that elevates it to the next level.
If you need a feel-good story, let me recommend A Million Miles Away. Peña and Salazar definitely make it worth the ride.