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TIFF 2019 Review: Lucy in the Sky – “Portman is good enough reason to watch”

Image courtesy of TIFF

If you’ve heard anything yet about Lucy in the Sky, it may be people’s disgust at the lack of diapers.  Yes, you are reading correctly.  Natalie Portman‘s character is loosely based upon Lisa Nowak, a former astronaut who in 2007 made news for driving 950 miles to confront a woman for sleeping with a colleague with whom she was having an affair.  To prevent bathroom breaks in an attempt to expedite her journey, she wore diapers.  While this detail is omitted (upsetting quite a few apparently!) the story here is only loosely based on that tabloid tale and not what director Noah Hawkley really seems to be channelling in this messy space drama.  That is up for debate.

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Lucy (Portman) has just returned, reluctantly, from a mission in space.  Her time there, seeing the Earth from an entirely different perspective has changed her.  She tries to pretend all is well, especially for her husband, Drew (Dan Stevens playing a dorky, docile man for comic relief) and her NASA appointed therapist (Nick Offerman), but all this effort serves one purpose: to return to space, no matter the cost.

As she begins training again for a new mission, she finds solace in a group of fellow astronauts that have also been off-world.  One member of this ‘club’ is Mark (Jon Hamm), the exact opposite of Drew.  Mark is manly and assertive (he also drinks a lot and is a womanizer – basically the Don Draper of astronauts).  He understands what Lucy is feeling, the need to head back to space, and he’s only too happy to use this commonality to start an affair with her.  This lack of judgement and personality change is just the tip of the iceberg for Lucy, who questions the meaning of it all, spiralling into an existential crisis.

Noah Hawkley, already accomplished on television with shows Fargo and Legion (also with Dan Stevens) tries to employ some visual gimmicks that don’t work when carried into a longer format.  His play with aspect ratio, at first intriguing, ends up being distracting and frustrating with continued use.  Everything that is good about Lucy in the Sky comes from Portman who, as usual, puts her all into her role.  She manages to excel as the troubled astronaut, but it just can’t fix everything.

What starts out as a seemingly feminist film ends up portraying its protagonist as the ‘crazy girlfriend’ by its finale.  The first act sees Lucy having to work harder for everything, showing the innate sexism in her profession, but as she starts to spiral we lose a sense of empathy for her.  She ends up a forgotten entity.  While Portman is good enough reason to watch, Alice Wincour’s Proxima is the better ‘astronaut film’ of the festival, and treats its protagonist with much more respect.

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