TIFF 19 – Despite Natalie Portman’s Strong Performance, ‘Lucy in the Sky’ Doesn’t Quite Clear the Tower

As of late, you may have noticed an increasing number of “prestige” projects featuring astronauts. Just last year we had the Oscar-baity First Man from Damien Chazielle, which starred Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in a sombre telling of man’s mission to the moon. In 2019, we have not one or two prestige astronaut features, but three. Lucy in the Sky is the second after James Gray’s space opera Ad Astra, and begins its theatrical release this month after doing the festival circuit. France’s Proxima, directed by Alice Winocour and starring Eva Green, is in the midst of its own festival run abroad, and will be released in its native country this November.

Lucy in the Sky is a fictional account of Lisa Nowak’s criminal activities after her affair with fellow astronaut William Oefelein. The film follows Lucy Cola, an astronaut who has recently returned from a lengthy mission in space. By all accounts, Lucy is incredibly capable. During her mental evaluations, you are presented with an independent, career-driven, strong, and smart woman. Seemingly well adjusted to being one of the few people to ever experience what she did in space., However, the cracks begin to form when Lucy becomes determined to go out again. This time, Lucy is struggling to be beyond reproach when a new female astronaut Erin Eccles (Zazie Beetz) enters the fray and a charismatic astronaut Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) lands in her sights.

In his feature debut, Noah Hawley struggles with finding the balance between reality and fiction, especially when the reality is stranger than any fiction anyone could dream of. The true events that transpired are incredibly unique considering who was involved. Hawley somehow bungles his interpretation by grounding the story in a half-baked attempt at being about the struggles of being a woman in professional work spaces. Although Hawley’s attempts are admirable, Lucy in the Sky still comes across as a man’s way of engaging with women’s issues when he has no describable experience to draw from.

The problem of the film lies with the fact that it is a very loose adaptation of Lisa Nowak’s life. What I mean is that Lucy Cola is depicted as a career-obsessed woman, complete with aggressive mannerisms to compete alongside the men, and putting down other women, especially if they are younger. Hawley paints Lucy with broad strokes rather than sticking to specific characteristics that make her unique. There are hints of that here and there, but not enough to make you feel like you are watching one specific person spiral from their decisions. Hawley at times is too focused on creating the atmosphere of the film and not creating a compelling character-driven story. The story becomes a broad tale of an astronaut returning from a life-changing experience and losing their grip on reality, and their meaningful connections with their lives on Earth. This line of thinking is also incredibly difficult to accept as it has been debunked numerous times, most recently when this project was announced.  On top of a shaky foundation, Hawley tacks on some shallow one-liners to hint at a deeper grasp of being a woman in male-dominated work spaces and then follows up with the insanity that ensues after Lucy is scorned. The further it veered away from reality, the more unstable the film became.

The point is, the film should have stuck to the facts of the case, and switched out a few details as to not burden the folks who were involved; or this film should have been written and directed by women who have a better grasp at being a woman in male-dominated spaces, and are constantly made to feel insecure about their power.

At the centre of this storm is Natalie Portman, who is doing the most to bring the whole thing together. At this stage of her career, there should be little to no question about her abilities as an actress and a storyteller. Portman is able to depict this misguided career-driven woman as a sympathetic character, and still tap into what it must have been like to be Lisa Nowak at this specific time in her life. Portman takes you on an entire journey, highlighting the many hurdles thrown at women who are demanded to be 10 times better to equal their male counterparts, and how one would be shaped by that kind of environment. Her interactions with the new astronaut trainee do not miss a beat in illustrating Lucy’s anxieties of being replaced, even if the dialogue is clunky and rings untrue. And, finally the near-perfect execution of playing a woman who finally snaps under the pressure of her job and the pressures of some poor life choices.

Portman knows exactly how to play Lucy Cola in a way that puts a spotlight on the changes women need to make to even be considered a contender, the sympathetic and unsympathetic choices they make, and Portman captures the madness of Lisa Nowak’s story. The final act is truly a wonder to watch as Portman zeroes in on what fascinated people about Nowak’s actions in the final leg of her spiral.   Lucy in a way that the rest of the film fails to do.

All in all, Lucy in the Sky is worth the price of admission based on Natalie Portman’s performance alone. Noah Hawley does his due diligence as a filmmaker to make the film worth a theatrical experience because every frame of footage is not wasted. The problem lies with the story and how it’s presented, but if you were to not know a single detail of the real-life account of what happened it may not impede your enjoyment of the film. However, the glaring missteps of the film are perhaps that it acts more profound then it needs to be might.

by Ferdosa Abdi

Ferdosa Abdi is a lifelong film student and aspiring film festival programmer. Her favourite genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and horror and her favourite director is Guillermo del Toro. She is madly in love with Eva Green and believes she should be cast in everything. You can follow Ferdosa on Twitter @atomicwick

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