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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 02/18/1999,

October Sky

This small, well-crafted coming-of-age docudrama is a real-life Revenge of the Nerds by way of Stand By Me. Set during the late 1950s in a sleepy West Virginia coal-mining community, the film revolves around a quartet of high-school geeks who, after being awe-inspired by the Soviets' launch of Sputnik, spend their after-school hours immersed in rocketry.

Based on the autobiography of former NASA technician Homer Hickam, the simplistic plot works to the film's advantage, highlighting the intimacies among the characters without getting maudlin. As the young Homer, Jake Gyllenhaal is delightfully earnest; he dreams of space flight, college, and a life beyond the suffocating confines of the coal mines that have sapped the lives of men such as his indomitable father -- played by Chris Cooper. Cooper (who was so poignant in Lone Star) is gauntly noble here as the controlling traditionalist caught between compassion and male pride as he confronts a labor insurrection at the mine and his son's break from the family path at home. Laura Dern is the schoolteacher who gives the boys the necessary encouragement to enter the big national science fair.

-- Tom Meek