It would be more at home on the Hallmark Channel than at a multiplex, but Amy Glazer’s film of Juliet Bell’s 2012 YA novel (one of the screenwriters is author Sylvia Brownrigg, who used Bell as her pseudonym for the book) is an innocuous if rather bland family movie that should appeal especially to teenage girls.
The protagonist is Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas), an eleven-year old whose loving mother Amy (Kelly Lynch) must go into the hospital for treatment of leukemia. Her estranged father Walt (Sean Patrick Flanery), who runs a small charter boat business, explains that he cannot take her in, and instead arranges for her to stay with his mother Violet (Holland Taylor) at her remote New Mexico ranch.
Violet’s surname is von Stern, and she lives up to it. She’s a haughty, cultured widow who demands that Ella act in accord with her high, traditional expectations; it’s no wonder that the girl will come to refer to her as G.M., not so much for grandmother as for “general marshal” because of her martinet streak.
Ella develops a friendly relationship with Violet’s chief ranch hand, agreeable Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada) and his daughter Rosie (Esperanza Fermin), and is at least tolerated by Abercrombrie (David Hunt), a book collector who has come to catalogue the library Violet inherited from her late husband, bringing along a young assistant named Jackson (Stafford Douglas). In time Walt, whose relationship with his mother is strained because of a tragedy in their past, will arrive for a visit as well.
A crisis arises when the prize item in the book collection—a rare incunabulum of the “Somnium” by the sixteenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler, a fantasy about a trip to the moon that has been called the first science-fiction novel (and which, of course, gives the film its title)—disappears. When suspicion falls on Miguel, Ella turns detective, aiming to identify the real culprit.
Her investigation, to tell the truth, doesn’t generate much suspense, and the resolution of the mini-mystery, and of the family discord at the center of the plot, is hardly of Sherlock Holmes quality. Suffice it to say that all ends well—even Amy’s ordeal turns out happily—and bonding, or rebonding, is the order of the day.
If the picture comes off rather like a Disney live-action effort from the fifties, however, it’s at least amiable—and offers some background information about astronomy and space exploration in laying out its tale of domestic dysfunction. Blake-Thomas is an agreeable lead, though sometimes a stiff one, and Fermin and Quezada are similarly pleasant. The film’s real strength, however, lies in Holland, who gives Violet’s imperiousness just the touch of softheartedness it requires, and Flanery comes into his own in the final act. On the technical level the movie is pretty homespun, but as shot by Nancy Screiber the New Mexico locale has some visual appeal.
“Kepler’s Dream” will hardly set the world afire like the astronomer’s laws of planetary motion—which were important supports to the Copernican heliocentric theory—did. Families looking for a harmless way to spend a couple of hours together should nevertheless find it acceptable—especially if adolescent girls are involved (their brothers, however, might feel the urge to wander off into an adjacent auditorium).