November 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Alice Winocour
French, Russian, German and English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and Germany, the sci-fi drama “Proxima” has an all-white cast of characters representing members of the middle-class scientific community.
Culture Clash: A French female astronaut, who will be the only woman in an international team of astronauts going to Mars, has difficult coping with how her year-long absence from home will affect her underage daughter.
Culture Audience: “Proxima” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about astronauts and their missions in outer space but with the added gravitas of how these missions affect the family members who are left behind on Earth.
Whenever there’s a movie about astronauts and a journey they take in outer space, people usually expect the movie to have some thrilling scenes of the astronauts in space or landing on another planet. “Proxima” is not that movie. Although the film is about an astronaut mission to land on Mars, “Proxima” takes a close look at a far more emotionally perilous journey: how an astronaut prepares to leave behind loved ones for several months. There’s always a possibility that something could go wrong with the mission and people might not make it back alive. And in the movie, it’s mentioned that the astronauts on this mission will experience a major physical toll on their bodies: Their body cells are expected to age 40 years in six months.
Directed with graceful aplomb by Alice Winocour (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Stéphane Bron), the heart and soul of “Proxima” are centered on the relationship between French astronaut Sarah Loreau (played by Eva Green) and Sarah’s daughter Stella Akerman Loreau (played by Zélie Boulant), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Sarah, who has a background in engineering, is ambitious, determined and someone who has dreamed of being an astronaut ever since she was a child.
At the beginning of “Proxima,” Sarah is seen testing out hi-tech artificial limbs at work and being a dutiful mother at home in Germany with Stella, her only child. Sarah is separated from Sarah’s father Thomas Akerman (played by Lars Eidinger), who also works in the scientific field, but it’s not specified in what type of science. Sarah has primary custody of Stella, who is a bright, inquisitive and emotionally empathetic child. Thomas, who lives several miles away, has weekend visitations.
But at the beginning of the movie, Sarah has already been selected for an important outer-space endeavor called the Proxima Mission, which will be the first time that humans are expected to land on Mars. The entire mission will take approximately one year for the chosen astronauts to live on Mars. And so, Sarah has to make arrangements with Thomas for Stella to live with Thomas while Sarah is away.
There’s some mild tension between Thomas and Sarah, because he seems a bit resentful that he suddenly has to make major adjustments to his life as a single parent with temporary full custody of his child. But overall, Sarah and Thomas have a cordial relationship and seem to be handling co-parenting responsibilities in the best way that they can.
Luckily, Stella is a kind and obedient child who doesn’t give her parents any trouble. She’s very proud of her mother’s accomplishments as an astronaut. However, Stella doesn’t yet seem fully aware of any long-term impact that Sarah’s absence might have on her and the rest of the family. Stella is more curious than angry about Sarah having to be away from home for a long period of time. Boulant does a good job in her role as Stella.
Sarah has to enroll Stella in a new school that’s close to where Thomas lives. During a meeting with that Sarah and Stella has with an administrator at this new school, Stella mentions that she’s dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysorthographic. Sarah worries that Stella might not be able to adjust to the standards of this new school. Meanwhile, Stella is worried about their female tabby cat named Laika because Stella’s father Thomas is allergic to cats. Sarah keeps reassuring Stella that everything will be fine and that Thomas will get used to having the cat in his home.
Spending a year away from Stella is a decision that weighs heavily on Sarah. Because although no one really comes right out and says it in this story, women who have to spend a lot of time away from their loved ones because of work responsibilities are judged more harshly than men who make the same decisions. Sarah might be feeling guilt or trepidation about how her absence will affect her relationship with Stella, but Sarah is not going to pass up this rare opportunity to not only go to Mars but also to be the first woman on Mars.
The majority of “Proxima” is about Sarah’s preparing herself and Stella for this long separation. Sarah often keeps her feelings bottled up inside, but Green gives an impressive performance where she is able to convey a lot of Sarah’s emotions through her eyes and facial expressions. “Proxima” is not a big adventure story with a bunch of astronauts flying through the universe in a spacecraft. This is a much more specific psychological portrait of someone who’s rarely seen on screen as the main character of a movie: a female astronaut who also happens to be a mother.
Before Sarah goes to Russia, where she and the other Proxima Mission astronauts complete the final phase of their intense training, a conference meeting is held at the space facility to introduce her as the newest member of the team. Members of the press have been invited. And making the introduction is Mike Shannon (played by Matt Dillon), an American astronaut who considers himself to the “alpha male” of the Proxima Mission group.
Mike makes it clear from the get-go that he has a sexist attitude toward women who are astronauts. When he introduces Sarah at this event, Mike makes sure to mention that Sarah is a “last-minute crew member,” implying that she wasn’t a first-choice candidate. And he comments that he’s glad that Sarah is French, “because French women are apparently really good at cooking.”
There are a few groans from the audience when Mike makes these micro-aggressive comments. Mike’s snide remarks, which he tries to cloak in a joking manner, are obviously meant to belittle Sarah, her accomplishments and her earned place on the astronaut team. Sarah is gracious about the backhanded insult and doesn’t confront about Mike about it, because she knows that she’s going to be stuck in outer space with this guy for a year. And given Mike’s attitude that men are superior to women when it comes to being astronauts, Sarah wisely figures it probably would not be a good idea to start off on Mike’s bad side.
Later at an outdoor party for the space-facility employees, Mike introduces Sarah to his wife Naomi Shannon (played by Nancy Tate), and they mention that they have two sons who are close to Stella’s age. When Naomi and Sarah are briefly talking alone together at the party, Sarah mentions her separated marital status and that her estranged husband will be taking care of Stella while Sarah is away. Naomi comments that it must be an special challenge to be a single parent and an astronaut.
Aside from her marital status and whether or not she has any children, Sarah reveals very little of her personal life to her colleagues. In a scene that happens later in the movie, Sarah and Mike are alone in a locker room together, and he tries to get her to reveal her sexual orientation and what’s going on in her love life. Mike asks Sarah if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend. She plays it cool and doesn’t really answer his questions, while he tells her that he’s just trying to get a handle on who she is.
Astute viewers can see that the only reason why Mike is asking these questions is to see if Sarah has an vulnerabilities that he might be able to exploit. That’s because although Mike acts as if Sarah is inferior to him as an astronaut, he still sees her as a threat because she’s mostly been excelling in the training sessions. During one of the final training sessions in Russia, Mike gloats when it looks like Sarah might fall short of expectations. And Mike openly smirks in the rare occasion that Sarah is late for a training session (because she was on the phone with Stella), and the instructor curtly punishes Sarah for her tardiness by sending her away and not letting her participate in the session.
The other Proxima Mission astronauts whom Sarah meets when she arrives in Russia are Anton Ocheivsky (played by Aleksey Fateev), who’s a compassionate Russian, and Jurgen (played by Trond-Erik Vassal), a German whose personality is hard to read since he doesn’t have much dialogue in the movie. Anton and Jurgen are minor supporting characters whose main purpose in this story is to show that not all of the men on this astronaut team are sexist jerks.
Sarah has a quiet determination to prove herself to everyone on the team. Mike acts more like a rival than a team member. And although he doesn’t blatantly do anything to sabotage Sarah, he does make little digs here and there to try and irritate her on a psychological level. Almost everything that Mike does to get on Sarah’s nerves to to try to make her feel inferior, just because she’s a woman.
For example, when Stella comes to visit Sarah during the final training sessions, Mike expresses irritation (and perhaps some jealousy) that Stella can be seen around the training facility. In a condescending tone, Mike tells Sarah that she needs to “cut the umbilical cord” and get Stella used to the idea that she won’t be able to see her mother for a long time once they’re in outer space. Aside from the fact that Mike doesn’t really have a right to tell Sarah how much time she should spend with her daughter before this momentous trip, the “cut the umbilical cord” comment is completely misogynistic. Obviously, Mike wouldn’t use those words with a man in the same position as Sarah.
Fortunately, “Proxima” doesn’t turn the tension between Mike and Sarah into a ridiculous melodrama. After all, these are professionals who are largely focused on common goals for this mission. “Proxima” also realistically shows that Sarah doesn’t act too shocked by Mike’s sexist attitude, because in her very male-dominated profession, she’s probably used to dealing with men who have the same misogynistic mindset that Mike does. There are also indications that Sarah has a strong sense of self and won’t compromise who she is, such when she rejects a male colleague’s suggestions that she cut her hair or take hormones that would suppress her menstrual cycle while she’s in outer space.
What has more of an emotional impact on Sarah is the fear of not knowing if her year-long absence might permanently damage Stella and her close relationship with Stella. No relationship is perfect, but the love between this mother and daughter is genuinely the most important thing in both of their lives. Amid all the intense training that Sarah has to go through for this mission, “Proxima” shows this mother/daughter love in a way that is touching without being overly sentimental. (Viewers who watch the movie should stay for the end credits, which features a photo montage of real-life female astronauts with their children.)
As a drama set in the world of astronauts, “Proxima” can be considered very low-key if compared to the way astronauts and their work are portrayed in other fictional movies. However much “Proxima” might lack in action scenes, it more than makes up for in its realistic depiction of humanity and relatable emotions. It presents the point of view of a woman astronaut in a male-dominated profession, without taking the cliché route of making gender discrimination the primary focus of the story. “Proxima” is inspiring and effective without being a heavy-handed and preachy movie.
Vertical Entertainment released “Proxima” on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.