The story about one’s journey to achieving an impossible dream is nothing new. But what makes ‘A Million Miles Away’ a uniquely inspiring one is its incredible true story of José M. Hernàndez, who became the first Mexican-American migrant farmworker to travel to space. He published an autobiography book titled ‘Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut’ in 2012, which, in turn, became the source of inspiration for director Alejandra Márquez Abella, who helmed two episodes of Netflix’s ‘Narcos: Mexico.’
The movie gets off to a promising start with Calexico’s Spanish version of The Mamas & the Papas’ ‘California Dreamin’ playing in the background. Abella and cinematographer Dariela Ludlow beautifully incorporate the classic song with an establishing shot of a cornfield, as we are introduced to the 7-year-old José (Juanpi Monterrubio) lying there on the ground peeling down the husk of the corn on the cob. And he’s doing so while looking up into the bright blue sky with the corn that he holds in his hand representing a rocket. The last time this song, albeit the original Mamas & the Papas’ version, was used to great effect was Wong Kar Wai’s ‘Chungking Express’ back in 1994.
We later see José is traveling with his family from Michoacán, Mexico, to sunny California to seek a greener pasture. They would work from farm to farm across different towns and live like nomads.
While in school, José proves to be a math prodigy as he manages to outsmart the kids in his class with his prompt answer when his teacher, Miss Young (Michelle Krusiec), asks a challenging question. She sees potential in him and urges his parents (Julio Cesar Cedillo and Veronica Falcón) to settle down in one place, allowing José to excel better in his studies without the constant distraction of living a nomadic life.
In fact, there’s a scene where Miss Young visits his parents and says something remarkably pondering:
“What would happen if he had a tree, planted it, watered it, cared for it, but then dug it up and replanted it every year, again and again? How would that tree grow?”
Because of these questions, the parents eventually chose to stay put and give José what was best for his education.
The movie jumps forward from the late 1960s to the ‘80s as the now grown-up adult José (Michael Peña), currently working as a lab engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But despite having his engineering degrees, some of his colleagues would treat him as an office boy (among them includes making tons of photocopies) or dismiss him as a janitor.
José may earn little respect at work but still holds his head high. He would keep working harder and, at the same time, applying for NASA’s astronaut training program every single year. Although he has to cope with repeated rejection letters arriving in his mailbox, he refuses to give up.
Abella, who also co-written the screenplay alongside Bettina Gilois of HBO’s ‘Bessie’ and Hernán Jiménez, sticks to the familiar rags-to-riches storytelling method from point A to Z. It’s formulaic, alright, particularly if you have seen enough of these kinds of inspirational stories.
And yet, ‘A Million Miles Away’ has a distinct feel-good factor that made this otherwise conventional biopic a better-than-average drama. The movie works well, thanks to Michael Peña’s central performance as José. It’s hard not to root for his earnest portrayal of a mild-mannered man who persevered the odds by working harder and dared to dream bigger.
Even with his migrant status, working in the U.S., where opportunities favor white people, while dealing with racism since childhood. His sheer determination (he faces rejection 11 times), coupled with the strong support that he gets from his eventual wife, played by Rosa Salazar, brings pathos to the story.
It also helps that Peña and Salazar share terrific lived-in chemistry as husband and wife who support each other despite having to go through the ordeal of a married couple. They have kids, and sacrifices are made, particularly from Salazar’s Adela’s point of view.
She, too, has an unfulfilled dream when she first dates José. But she’s willing to put that aside in favor of realizing her husband’s dream. In the hands of a lesser director, her role could have been relegated to a thankless supportive-wife cliché. But I’m glad Salazar is given ample room to make her character truly her own.
The movie also benefits from solid supporting performances all around, covering Julio Cesar Cedillo’s subtle turn as José’s father (at one point, his advice on how he adheres to certain “ingredients” in his life to stay motivated comes to mind), to Garret Dillahunt’s stern but sympathetic NASA commander-in-charge, Rick Sturckow. Even the minor appearance of Michelle Krusiec deserves a mention here for her wonderful performance as José’s caring elementary school teacher, Miss Young.
‘A Million Miles Away’ eventually gets to the crucial part, where José is finally selected to become part of the astronaut team of the STS-128 space flight to the International Space Station. The obligatory moments of proudly entering the space shuttle and the likes of counting down to a launch are all there.
But the final third act feels strangely rudimentary. Given the fact this is supposed to be José’s first and only space mission as the first Mexican-American migrant to ever travel to space, I would have expected something grand or epic.
Still, such a shortcoming remains forgivable since the bulk of the movie boasts a fine and well-acted drama.
‘A Million Miles Away’ is currently streaming on Prime Video.