Producers: Mark Ciardi and Campbell Melanes   Director: Alejandra Márquez Abella   Screenplay: Bettina Gilois, Hernán Jiménez and Alejandra Márquez Abella   Cast: Michael Peña, Rosa Salazar, Bobby Sato, Sarayu Blue, Verónica Falcón, Julio César Cedillo, Garrett Dillahunt, Eric Johnson, Jordan Dean, Juanpi Monterrubio, Michelle Krusiec, Esther Véale and Ashley Ciarra   Distributor:  Amazon MGM Studios

Grade: C

Tragedies, both national and personal, do occur in Alejandra Márquez Abella’s adaptation of José Moreno Hernández’s 2012 memoir “Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut,” which he wrote collaboratively with Monica Rojas Rubin.  At one point Hernández (played by Michael Peña) mourns the sudden death of his beloved cousin Beto (Bobby Soto).  At another he’s devastated when Kaipana Chawla (Sarayu Blue), the Indian-American NASA veteran who had befriended him during his training, is among the crew members who perish when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrates during reentry to earth atmosphere in 2003.

Yet Beto’s death is treated quite summarily, and the way in which the news about the Columbia is depicted in the film is characteristic of the overall approach.  Hernández is serving tables at the restaurant run by his wife Adela (Rosa Salazar) when a report comes over the television.  He leaves immediately, but not before telling Adela to turn off the television.  Bad news can’t be ignored, but it can be muted.

And that’s what regularly happens in “A Million Miles Away,” a version of Hernández’s life story that minimizes the darker aspects of poverty and prejudice in order to present his biography in a relentlessly upbeat fashion as proof of the American dream at work. 

José (played by Juanpi Monterrubio) must struggle to escape the fields where he works with his family as a child, and his parents Salvador (Julio César Cedillo) and Julia (Verónica Falcón) make financial sacrifices to ensure that he gets a good education.  He overcomes the obstacles with the help of Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec), a saintly teacher who recognizes his intelligence and convinces the boy’s parents to settle down in Stockton so José doesn’t have to constantly move from school to school, following the crops.  And before you know it, he’s grown up and graduating college as Salvador and Julia look on with big smiles.  Buying his first car, he romances Adela, who works at the dealership, and after coming to terms with her large family and stern father, marries her.  They begin raising a family of their own.   

That’s followed by his earning an advanced degree and taking an engineering position at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where a receptionist assumes him to be a custodian and staff members, both his severe superior Clint Logan (Eric Johnson) and some of his colleagues like Weissberg (Jordan Dean), treat him condescendingly even after that mistake is cleared up—until he solves a problem that has flummoxed them all.  That certainly alters Logan’s attitude toward him.

But despite becoming a staple at Livermore, José harbors the dream he’s had since he was a kid, looking from the fields to the stars—to join NASA and become an astronaut.  He applies again and again for astronaut training, and on the twelfth occasion delivers his application in person to program head CJ Sturchow (Garret Dillahunt), finally winning admittance in 2004.  Intense training ensues, and in 2009 he’s chosen to be a member of crew on a shuttle mission to the Space Station.  He and his comrades resided on the station for nearly two weeks, though the film ends with his grinning face during the launch—and the image of a Monarch butterfly flying in the cockpit, referring back to young José’s sighting of one back in the fields.

Clearly Abella wants our hearts to soar along with Hernández, but despite the occasional poetic flourish her film remains resolutely earthbound.  A major part of the problem lies with Peña, a likable actor but one with a limited range.  Certainly it was an error to have him play José as a graduating college student; at 46 he looks nothing like a 21-year old, and the effect is more than a mite ridiculous.  But that’s a minor difficulty compared to the nearly unrelieved gee-whiz niceness he brings to the role.  This is, to be sure, an authorized biography, which only fleetingly touches upon the inherent issues of racism and bigotry, but there still might have been more nuance in his performance. 

There is, however, some compensation in Salazar’s vibrant turn as Adela, and in Cedillo and Falcón’s heartfelt ones as José’s parents.  (Falcón seems to be the go-too actress for such roles; she’s also Ari’s mother in “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.”)  Most of the remaining supporting cast are merely okay, but Monterrubio is charming as the young José. 

The film is only adequate from the technical perspective, with effects that are quite ordinary.  But the basic technical work—the production design by Rafael Mandujano Delgado, cinematography by Dariela Ludlow Delora and editing  by Harvé Schneid—is solid, though Camilo Lara contributes a score that strives much too strenuously for majesty as José’s dream comes true.

That’s to be expected in a movie that’s calculated to lift our spirits, and for some it may succeed.  But it’s too eager to please to really tackle the more serious social issues underlying Hernández’s story—or the details that make its “underdog triumphs” premise more complex (like that fact that he was one of two Mexican-American astronauts on the 2009 shuttle flight—the other being John D. Olivas, who goes unmentioned here).