Why October Sky Remains One of the All-Time Great Teen Movies
By Mandi Bierly
Twenty years ago, the true story of a budding rocket scientist from a coalmining town hit theaters. Today, it’s just as inspiring.
The year 1999 was a banner one for memorable teen movies, with releases that include American Pie, Varsity Blues, She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You, Dick, and Election. But only earnest drama October Sky took the true teen underdog story to new heights — and depths.
A non-yet famous Jake Gyllenhaal starred as Homer Hickman, a young man who dreams of getting out of Coalwood, West Virginia before he’s forced to follow his father (Chris Cooper) down into the mines. Since he’s not a high school football star like his brother, Homer doesn’t have much hope, until he watches the Soviet satellite Sputnik streak across the sky in October 1957 and announces he’s going to build a rocket. If he can make it to a national science fair, he too may be offered a college scholarship.
The film, directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, Jumanji), is adapted from the real Hickman’s coming-of-age memoir Rocket Boys and beautifully layers in all the obstacles he faces: from the classmates, family, and townspeople who first laugh at him and his three cohorts, to the school principal who initially believes the teacher (a warm and steely Laura Dern) encouraging the boys is setting them up with false hopes. “How about I believe in the unlucky ones,” she tells her boss. “I have to, Mr. Turner, or I’d go out of my mind.”
Homer’s complicated relationship with his disapproving, pragmatic father, John is the biggest threat to Homer’s plan — as well as the heartbeat of the movie. As a supervisor, John believes the coal mine is the best chance for Homer to have a stable future (and that his son has inherited the instincts to keep himself safe). Homer, on the other hand, knows his father has had to be a hero in more than one accident and hears the cough that will eventually kill John in the ’70s. He considers that option a death sentence.
As high as the stakes are, the tension between father and son never turns melodramatic in the hands of Cooper (a future Oscar winner for 2002’s Adaptation), who commands naturally the respect John, a man of few words, deserves and receives in Lewis Colick’s screenplay. Gyllenhaal, who was the same age as Homer when he was filming the breakthrough performance, shows the promise that would earn him an Oscar nomination for 2007’s Brokeback Mountain. Because you believe his goofy grin in the moments when Homer is inspired or validated, you feel the emptiness when he goes numb to convey the overwhelming fear and resignation as Homer literally (and temporarily) descends into darkness. It doesn’t get more poetic than watching a dreamer who spends his time looking up at the endless sky being lowered into a claustrophobic tunnel.
Of course, you’d only make this movie if it has an uplifting ending, so we won’t feel too guilty for sharing that Homer Hickman grew up to be a NASA engineer. What we won’t spoil is the final moments between John and Homer in the film, which are so satisfying for the soul, they’ll require tissues no matter how many times you decide to re-watch them.