- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Astronaut Farmer’

Rating: PG for thematic material, peril and language.

Common Sense Media: On. For ages 8 and older.

*** (out of five stars)

Running time: 104 minutes

Common Sense review: Part frontier myth, part family saga and part redemption story, “The Astronaut Farmer” is about dreaming, sacrifice and obsession. A one-time astronaut who had to leave the space program to tend to family issues, Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) still wants to be an astronaut in the worst way. By day, he works on his ranch (sometimes wearing his spacesuit); at night, he builds a rocket in the barn, with the goal of orbiting his capsule one time around the Earth.

The enormity of the project is daunting. Charlie leaves daily life details to his infinitely patient wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen). Even when she discovers that Charlie has nearly bankrupted the family (“You’re supposed to keep us safe”), Audie doesn’t quite put a stop to the adventure. A visit from her own ailing father (Bruce Dern) makes her think hard about men’s limits and aspirations and how best to help them understand both.

Charlie insists that his dream is good for their three children. “You better know what you wanna do,” he tells them, “before someone knows it for you.” Sounds good, but when he takes the children out of school, the local police come around and, in their wake, federal agents, who wonder whether Charlie’s building a spaceship or a weapon. Either way, he has to stop: Rockets are NASA’s business.

Charlie remains fixated despite money troubles, legal threats and taunts.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this is an uplifting family-friendly fantasy populated by realistic characters and settings. Younger children might need some context to understand emotional scenes involving a grandfather’s death and a rocket crashing.

A character throws a brick through a bank window in anger, and a wife throws a plate at her husband. Children in the family have to deal with their father’s reputation for being “crazy,” and his wife has to contend with financial hardship in the wake of her husband’s obsession. One rocket launch results in an explosion and crash that leaves Charlie in the hospital (some blood). Note that there is mild cursing and sexual slang.

Families can talk about whether this movie is a fantasy, a drama or both. What makes something a fantasy? Families also can discuss how Charlie’s two major responsibilities — to follow his dream and support his family — conflict with each other. Does he make a good choice? How does his desire to orbit his rocket both inspire and frighten his children? What obstacles does Charlie face? How does Audie support her husband?

Sexual content: Sexual slang.

Language alert: Mild language, used infrequently; some name-calling.

Violence alert: Discussion of suicide (an adult child recalls his father’s death); Charlie throws a brick through the bank window when he gets a foreclosure notice; angry Audie throws a plate at Charlie; sad scene in which Audie finds her father dead in his bed; the first launch features an explosion and crash that leaves Charlie bloody and broken, then laid up in the hospital.

Commercialism alert: Product sponsorship is a thematic concern of the movie (Farmer seeks commercial endorsements to finance the rocket, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Dairy Queen); other brand names mentioned or shown include Tang, Target, Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, John Deere and Lucky Charms.

Social-behavior alert: Charlie is dedicated to his dream of space flight, and his family supports him even when his obsession threatens the family’s financial well-being; federal agents look menacing; a rancher drinks beer.

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