The dream of being an astronaut was planted in José Hernández (Michael Peña) early, when he and his family were migrant workers in 1960s California. Back when the U.S. immigration policy resembled a revolving door more than a steel wall, tens of thousands of families would travel north to harvest seasonal crops. For his parents, the work was in service of a long-held dream: to build a house in their native Michoacán. The children were frequently uprooted and placed in new schools as the family zigzagged across the state, following the work. It wasn’t until a teacher, Ms. Young (Michelle Krusiec), intervened that the Hernández parents settled in Stockton, Calif., forsaking their dream for their children’s education. That’s where young José saw the 1969 moon landing on T.V., a moment that ignited a lasting passion for flight.
Sacrifice, grit, perseverance, tenacity: These are the themes that drive “A Million Miles Away,” directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and based on José Hernández’s memoir, “Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut,” a true up-by-the-bootstraps tale. The film spans decades, from childhood to, eventually, the NASA space program. He married Adela (Rosa Salazar), a car saleswoman and aspiring chef, with whom he had five children; along the way he also worked as an engineer at a federal research facility. He is propelled by the support of his wife and family as well as a “recipe” for success from his father, Salvador (Julio César Cedillo), around which the film is framed.
Beautifully shot and interspersed with historical footage of migrant workers and spacecraft launches, the film’s most effective and touching scenes revolve around the family relationships, particularly José’s with his cousin Beto (Bobby Soto), who became a farmworker like his parents. In one scene, Beto says: “I just think it’s great that I get to be so freaking proud and have no idea what you’re talking about, cousin.” It’s a line that aptly distills what many upwardly mobile immigrants face. There are moments that show the clashes of the two worlds, and those that show their melding: José’s driving to work blasting a ranchera on the radio; using a corncob as a spaceship; or washing dishes in his astronaut uniform. These are heartwarming scenes, and it’s hard not to be moved by the enormity of the challenge he undertook and conquered.
But the grit narrative at times becomes a bit heavy-handed, with quotes such as “Hard work or nada,” from his father, and “Tenacity is a superpower” from his NASA trainer, Kalpana Chawla (Sarayu Blue). José Hernández applied to the space program 11 times before succeeding, and the film centers almost exclusively on this plight. There are meaningful glances at his hands, an echo of the calloused hands that supported him, and montages of his persevering through training.
In peddling the mythical American dream narrative, the film misses an opportunity for conflict or character development and falls short of delving into bigger, more interesting themes: assimilation, immigration, gender roles, family conflict. Doing so would have made for a more meaningful watch and felt more in line with our present understanding of the reality of migrants’ lives.
A Million Miles Away
Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters, and streaming on Prime Video Sept. 15.