Judge Lacey Worrell reports that in West Virginia, October Sky usually leads to November Rain.
Our review of October Sky, published August 4th, 1999, is also available.
Sometimes one dream is enough to light up the whole sky.
Reminiscent of another true story, Rudy, which features another young man overcoming poor, small town roots and the objections of his family to achieve an almost impossible goal, October Sky may not have football at its center, but you will root for its central characters nonetheless.
Facts of the Case
October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam, Jr., a boy born into the abject poverty and hopelessness of tiny Coalwood, West Virginia, who followed his dream of building rockets straight to working as an engineer for NASA. From the outset Homer and his friends are ridiculed for their desire to build and launch rockets; if not for the support from their loving, terminally ill teacher (Laura Dern, Mask), it is unlikely they could have withstood the pressure and the naysayers—one of whom is the principal of the school, who believes it is wrong to give the boys false hope about ever leaving Coalwood.
Despite the rockets, the strained relationship between Homer and his father really takes precedence. This film takes place in the late 1950s, in a tiny town where boys were expected to either leave town on a football scholarship or follow their fathers into the coal mines, and as a result, eventually die in freak accidents, cave-ins, or from the dreaded black lung disease. Much to the dismay of his father, Homer looks up to scientist Werner von Braun instead of idolizing the teen stars of the day, while he dodges the taunts of his older brother, the local football hero. October Sky culminates with the prestigious National Science Fair, where young Homer is given the opportunity to put Coalwood on the map.
Half of my family hails from Coalwood but now lives in the neighboring town of Welch, which, if you believe what you hear in October Sky, is practically a thriving metropolis. It may be in comparison to Coalwood, but by national standards, it is not. When the coal miners pulled out, it left this rugged, mountainous area of southern West Virginia even more desperate, yet as Hickam states on the DVD, Coalwood's core values of family and education remain constant. One has to visit Coalwood and Welch to truly understand how remarkable Hickam's story, and his dogged determination, are. Hickam notes that the film has sparked new interest in the area, which can only mean better times ahead for its residents.
In this early performance, Jake Gyllenhaal (The Good Girl) is absolutely terrific. He is for the most part somber, but his face takes on a different light as each rocket is launched into the sky. Chris Cooper (Seabiscuit) is phenomenal as Homer's father; he struggles to understand his son's unusual fascination with rockets and maintain control of not only Homer, but of his rebellious wife (Natalie Canerday, Sling Blade), who longs for nothing more than to escape Coalwood herself.
A major benefit of this film is that it can easily be enjoyed by parents and teenagers together; teenagers will especially relate to Homer's awkwardness with girls, his difficulty in communicating with his father, and his persecution at the hands of other students who cannot possibly comprehend his goals.
The real-life Hickam, on whose books this film was based, provides the commentary. It's especially insightful, given the fact that without him the story would not exist. He is quick to acknowledge the parts of the film that take dramatic license with the true story, but he is matter-of-fact about the process; if anything, the film stays truer to the real-life story than most, mainly because the story, and its ending, are just that good. Be sure to also catch the moving 30-minute documentary, which brings together not only the real-life Hickam, but the surviving Rocket Boys—and even their nemesis, the crotchety school principal, who is still alive and well in Coalwood. They reflect on the central themes of the film and recall fond memories of what it was like to actually live it. Hickam's gentle, yet respectful, ribbing of his former principal is especially entertaining.
October Sky is that rare mix of entertainment and quality that will leave you thinking about it for days afterward. Everything about it is top-notch, from the acting to the production values, and it is guaranteed to capture the attention and the imagination of even the most jaded teenage—or, for that matter, adult—viewer.
See the movie and read the book, but not necessarily in that order. This is one of those rare films that is as good on the book it is based on. Either way, you can't go wrong.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary with Homer Hickam
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