Space movies have always been an anomaly to me. Don’t get me wrong, the setting allows for stunning visuals and fascinating tales of isolation, but the sheer volume of space-related films birthed in the last decade seems off. First Man, High Life, Ad Astra, Lucy in the Sky, Gravity, The Martian, Interstellar. As great as some of these films are, surely audiences are bound to become bored with algorithmic space ventures. This is where Alice Winocour’s Proxima excels.
Proxima is not a space epic; it is centered around the effects of the vigorous space training process on a mother-daughter relationship. The film chronicles Sarah (Eva Green), an astronaut soon embarking on a year-long expedition to the International Space Station. This voyage, titled Proxima, will be transformative to Sarah’s career but involves leaving behind her eight-year-old daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant). Stella appears to fiercely understand that her mother will be gone, however, throughout the course of the film seems to fight the idea more and more.
Stella, who is now staying with her father, Thomas (Lars Eidinger), only becomes more withdrawn. The two already have an odd relationship as Sarah and Thomas are separated, but the dramatic shift in routine only worsens this. Thomas is a busy physicist who does not have the time to necessitate Stella’s needs. Stella thereby finds herself in a difficult place, where her mother is physically far and her father is emotionally distant. But she never complains. Stella’s apparent indifference is merely her means of coping. This is where Boulant shines – she is able to pack an emotional punch at such a young age.
Sarah exists within a male-dominated profession, constantly having to assure her abilities to her sexist male counterparts. Throughout the film, we encounter Sarah as a balancing act; she struggles to cope with the emotional strain of being both a present mother and a stellar astronaut. Running from phone calls with Stella to physically intensive astronaut training at the European Space Agency, Sarah begins to question her abilities as a parent. These doubts are amplified through Mike (Matt Dillon), a fellow astronaut on the Proxima mission, who bludgeons Sarah with criticism any chance he can get.
Winocour’s female gaze manifests itself subtly throughout. There are moments where Sarah refuses to quit, to the point of making herself sick during centrifuge training; not solely from ambition, but from a desire to attest her worth. Then there are the smaller moments – like when Sarah is asked whether she would prefer to continue menstruating in space. “I’d like to keep it,” she says. This conversation, while contextually normal, appears jarring; body autonomy is a topic rarely examined casually in films. This is another way in which Winocaur tests the audience’s preconceived notions of this subgenre. She also tackles the more complex and unjust differences between female and male astronauts.
For instance, Winocaur asserts the double standard of parenting through Sarah and Mike. Mike, who is shown to have two children, does not seem at all concerned for them during training. We rarely encounter him calling them and when we do, they are not nearly as personal as the phone calls between Sarah and Stella. And somehow, Mike escapes any implication of being a substandard father, while Sarah’s mind is weighed down with constant panic regarding her parenting. As her tasks become increasingly onerous, Sarah wavers but is thankfully able to soar in the end.
Depicting strength in femininity and intelligence in pain, Proxima is a necessary feat. Not all filmmakers can capture mother-daughter relationships in the way that Winocaur does. She is able to create a work that is thunderous but delicate while simultaneously subverting the canon of the traditional space film. Essentially, Proxima is criminally underrated for all that it offers. Seek it out, you won’t regret it.