Early scenes in A Million Miles Away introduce us to young Jose Hernandez (Juan Pablo Monterrubio). His parents have moved the family from Mexico to the United States, where they travel around doing migrant work. Jose is always starting at a new school because they never stay anywhere for very long. A concerned teacher, Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec), notices his advanced intelligence and makes a plea to his parents to stay put, for his sake. That works, although Mr. Hernandez still thinks Jose’s dream of being an astronaut is far-fetched. What opportunities would impoverished immigrants have to go into space? The boy’s future is clearly in the fields.
Except, of course, that it’s not. The film jumps forward to Jose, now played by Michael Peña, as an adult. His dream has never gone away. He works as an engineer at a laboratory, where the secretary mistakes him for a janitor. (Subtle racism is everywhere.) Each year, Jose applies to NASA’s space program, only to be rejected. Wife Adela (Alita: Battle Angel’s Rosa Salazar) encourages him to keep going, asking what the accepted applicants have that he doesn’t. The answer is a lot of things, which he spends years doggedly pursuing.
A Million Miles Away is based on an inspiring true story. The movie tells that story in a completely conventional manner designed for maximum uplift. Jose does indeed finally get accepted into NASA’s program. Some very authentic training sequences show how he’s prepped for a mission into space. And once out of Earth’s atmosphere? Director Alejandra Marquez Abella doesn’t hesitate to underline how far Jose has come, not just in terms of miles traveled but also from his humble beginnings. As Adela tells her husband, determination is a superpower.
Even though it follows a well-worn storytelling path, the movie remains effective because it’s made with an abundance of sincerity. Jose Hernandez’s story is amazing. How he went from field worker to astronaut represents the American dream at its finest, and A Million Miles Away knows that. Sticking to a familiar template allows us to sit back and appreciate his journey. Sometimes we need that sort of cinematic comfort food. This is a fine example of how to do it.
Michael Peña delivers an earnest performance as Jose, helping us understand this man’s drive without making his eventual triumph seem pre-ordained. In fact, many of the actor’s best moments are the ones where Jose doubts himself or is deflated by rejection. Hitting those notes so well makes it more meaningful when he finally gets his shot. Rosa Salazar is similarly good, deftly sidestepping the “endlessly supportive wife of the hero” cliches to make Adela a smart, spunky character in her own right.
A Million Miles Away aims to make viewers feel good. On that count, it absolutely succeeds. The movie might not break new ground, but it delivers two hours of stirring entertainment.
out of four
A Million Miles Away is rated PG for thematic elements and language. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.