French writer and director Alice Winocour didn’t have much money to spend on her fourth feature, Proxima, but it’s hard to tell. A quite stunning showing from Eva Green and slick direction throughout its tight 107-minute runtime lend Winocour’s film the physical and dramatic scale of a blockbuster.
But a blockbuster it isn’t. Proxima is in truth a deep dive into the human cost of immense ambition – the sort of ambition that makes you want to go to space, leading a young daughter to ask why. Green is Sarah, a French astronaut whose lifelong dream is challenged first by the European Space Agency’s rigid training regime and second within her own home. Her daughter Stella – in a brilliant debut performance by Zélie Boulant-Lemesle – at first accepts her mother’s impressive ambition but is soon disappointed by her extended absences, finding alternative maternal role models elsewhere, to Sarah’s disappointment. It doesn’t help that Stella’s father (Sarah’s ex-husband) Thoma (Lars Eidinger) is a reluctant caddy for Stella’s visits to her mother in the Russian training camp. A further antagonist is Matt Dillon’s American big-shot astronaut Mike Shannon, who ensures that the spectre of Stella isn’t too close. “You have to sever that connection”, he tells her sternly.
Proxima might have grand intentions outside of our atmosphere, but it’s the unavoidably earthly relationship between Sarah and Stella that becomes the central one. If First Man couldn’t quite make up its mind on whether it was about the internal or external challenges to reaching the moon, Winocour evidently made up her mind early in deciding where the focus of her film would be. Having said that, comparisons to the other space-related films of the past decade would prove fruitless. Proxima has a unique voice that not all may immediately connect with, but it’s an authentic and original voice – motivated by Winocour’s own relationship with her daughter – nonetheless.
It won’t quite grab the headlines in what looks to be another highly contested awards season – keep an eye out for the outcome of the Tiff People’s Choice Award for a preview of what Best Picture might look like – but Proxima shouldn’t be forgotten. By choosing to aim its gaze on a subset of the scientific community that gets great attention but little authenticity, and offering a voice to a mother-daughter relationship that is similarly borne out all-too-infrequently in movies of this genre, Proxima aims to go where few films have gone before.