Published Nov 06, 2020French director Alice Winocour's Proxima opens with a conversation between a mother and a daughter. For a film that I like to refer to as "Eva Green's space movie," it really isn't a space movie at all. Sure, it's about astronauts, but at its centre, this is a mother-daughter love story. Being a mother is the hardest job of all, a big part of many women's lives, but as Green's Sarah looks up at the stars, we are reminded that mothers have other ambitions, too. Does motherhood mean sacrificing dreams? Do dreams mean sacrificing motherhood? The film answers these questions in a moving narrative that also touches on the importance of everything that surrounds us here on Earth, even down to the smallest things — the wind in our hair, the kiss of the sun on our skin, and the cool touch of grass on our feet — that we often take for granted.
Proxima, named after the film's titular mission to Mars, follows Sarah as she trains for her first launch into space. There are many films about astronauts, many that concentrate so heavily on getting to the space part that we aren't given as in-depth of insight into the training and isolation as we do here. The film highlights various training exercises and simulations that, having been filmed in various European Space Agency training facilities, are all incredibly authentic. It's fascinating to watch, but what drives at least half of the narrative is its confrontation of the sexism present in that environment. Men, more often than not, are the central figures in space films. The risks are equally as high for them, but the sacrifice always seems to be lesser. Yes, they are leaving their children behind, but it's okay because they have a wife who can take care of things while they're gone. But what if you're a single mother?
The way the film introduces the space industry's sexist views is through Matt Dillon's obnoxious crew member, Mike. He's an unlikeable character who pushes Sarah to her limits by treating her as though she doesn't have the strength to do the same training as the men do. She must never show weakness and push harder than anyone else because, as everyone seems to think, being an astronaut is "not a job for girls." They really hammer that home with a quick discussion on menstruation between her and a male doctor. He asks if she would like to keep it or not, and when she decides to keep it, he makes it sound like it will be an inconvenience, like it's his body and it's his choice.
On top of this, she also has a young daughter (Zélie Boulant) to worry about. As Sarah goes off to train for three weeks before heading on her mission, she and Stella are separated — it feels unnatural. This separation is only heightened by the lousy connection on phone calls, videos of Stella leaning firsts without her, and even just the slightest change in her voice that signals she's growing and Sarah is missing it. Even though it's just three weeks, the smallest amount of time apart feels significant and heartbreaking to watch.
Sarah and Stella go on a tough journey together, one they were inevitably prepared for, but fears and worries still linger. The way Winecour writes Stella is refreshing because, while she's only a child, she understands and is fascinated by her mother's dream. She doesn't make her feel guilty for it. There are no big dramatic tantrums where she ever doubts the love her mother has for her. In fact, she seems happy. They have their rough patches, but it's all in the mental preparation that they have to go through to get ready for what's to come. This relationship is beautifully brought to screen by Green and Boulant. Green is astounding as always, in the best and most emotional role of her career. All the pressure her character faces is felt in every breath she takes. And Boulant, in her first big role, is transformative as she seems to grow along with her character. It's subtle, but also it's clear in the way she carries herself that this journey has changed and matured her.
Proxima, while strong in many respects, has some off-putting bits of editing and isn't entirely unique as it touches on subjects that have been explored many times before (like this year's Netflix series Away, also about a mother travelling to Mars). The film does provide some new insight, however. It's an emotional voyage with two great leads commanding it. One scene between them will be familiar to those who have seen First Man: Sarah and Stella separated by glass, unable to touch except through the window. It's an even more emotional scene than First Man managed, as both actors carry a vulnerability, one that mothers will surely appreciate, especially the women the film is dedicated to. (Pathé Films)