If Homer Hickam Jr. had followed family expectations, he would have joined his father down in the mines of rural Coalwood, W.Va. Instead, Hickam looked up into the skies where Sputnik was making history in 1957 and decided he wanted to enter the space age too. The young boy who built homemade rockets in his backyard grew up to become a NASA engineer. And the book he wrote about his childhood, ”Rocket Boys,” has become, anagrammatically, ”October Sky,” a veritable constellation of inspirational motifs, twinkling in an earnest, modest production.
Young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal, maturing gracefully since he played Billy Crystal’s kid in ”City Slickers”) was, as it happened, the kind of self-confident-while-well-mannered dreamer who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Undaunted by the lack of support from his mine-superintendent father (the elegantly scrupulous Chris Cooper), Homer rounds up three friends to help him build his sky-bound experiments; to combat his father’s disapproval, though, he has the blessing of a sympathetic teacher (Laura Dern), who encourages her student’s un-Coalwood ambitions.
The emotional father-son showdown (”The coal mine is your life, not mine!”), the quietly loving mother, the jock brother who lives for football and girls, the pretty spinster teacher, the ignorant school principal, the close-knit townsfolk struggling with limited resources and black lung disease — they’re all laid out like pieces in a shoebox diorama, placed just so.
But Gyllenhaal and Cooper save the film from two-dimensionality with their passionate performances. And director Joe Johnston (returning to matters of propulsion after ”The Rocketeer”), working with cinematographer Fred Murphy (”Dance With Me”), creates a poetic feeling of past and future, framed most pointedly in a shot where father and son descend in an elevator cage into the mine just as Sputnik arcs overhead, blinking the path to Hickam’s destiny.