Netflix cancelled the Hilary Swank-led science fiction drama Away after just one season, but fans of the series will find a similarly low-key, emotion-driven astronaut story in the French film Proxima, which hits VOD platforms on November 6. Laser-focused on the physical, emotional, and social trials an aspiring woman must endure to be part of a one-year mission to the International Space Station, Proxima could easily be a prequel to Away.
In Proxima, the ISS trip is meant to pave the way for a manned trip to Mars. Away mostly follows the challenges experienced by Swank’s Emma Green, the woman commanding a trailblazing mission to the red planet. Sexism and the emotional toll of leaving your family are key issues in Away, but those topics are punctuated by dives into the backstories of the rest of the mission’s crew, and dramatic sequences where the characters needed to work with Houston to solve the on-ship crisis du jour. Proxima instead hones in on the relationship between astronaut Sarah Loreau (Eva Green of Penny Dreadful and Casino Royale) and her 7-year-old daughter Stella (Zélie Boulant), and how it’s a source of both strength and anguish.
While Emma’s daughter is a teenager, looked after by Emma’s supportive husband and a friendly NASA liaison dedicated to the family’s welfare, everything about Sarah’s situation is harder. Sarah is separated, and has to force Stella on her father Thomas Akerman (Lars Eidinger), a self-important astrophysicist who can barely make time to see his daughter on the weekends. When Sarah and Stella meet with their liaison, Wendy Hauer (Sandra Hüller), she practically oozes disapproval at the decision Sarah is making, and she pushes Sarah to consider the possibility that something could happen to either her or her daughter during the mission.
Stella’s youth ups the emotional ante, and explores territory Away potentially could have journeyed into if it hadn’t been cut short. Emma has been in space before, but Away’s writers never really covered how her family reacted to her previous absences. Being separated from her mom for just three months while Sarah trains in Russia proves excruciating for Stella.
Boulant brings powerful pathos to transparent acts of emotional manipulation, like Stella’s complaint that their cat Laika — named for the first animal in space — won’t be happy in a new home. Footage of Sarah undergoing brutal training exercises meant to test her physical endurance are interspersed with teary calls from Stella complaining about not having friends at her new school and struggling with her math homework. The dichotomy makes it clear that the family trials are actually harder for Sarah to survive than the physical ones.
The sexism Sarah experiences is also much sharper. Emma has to deal with some frustrating second-guessing about her authority and perspective, but Sarah faces brutal scrutiny and demeaning comments at almost every turn. She’s told it would be better if she cut her hair short for the mission, and that if she doesn’t want to have her menstruation medically stopped for the trip, the tampons she brings along will come at the expense of other personal effects. The mission’s swaggering American team leader, Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) jokes that it will be nice to have Sarah on board, because French women are known to be great cooks. He also suggests she ask for a lighter training schedule, in an obvious bid to get her replaced with her male alternate.
Season 1 of Away paints a fairly utopian view of the international space program, with most personal conflicts being swiftly resolved as the brilliant crews on the ground and in space work together for their greater mission. Proxima shows the rougher edges of space science, but eventually lands in the same place. Mike is an excellent antagonist precisely because he isn’t a true villain, just an extremely competitive man who isn’t sure how he should deal with a woman who can stand up to him. Writer-director Alice Winocour thankfully avoids any romantic entanglements, but gentles their relationship as the film goes on, with charming scenes like Mike trying to press a convenience-store clerk to say whether a souvenir magnet with his photo is outselling Sarah’s version.
In Penny Dreadful, Green demonstrated an ability to alternate between seeming preternaturally confident and absolutely tortured, and that contrast is on full display in Proxima. She can stand tall and wryly smirk through a belittling conversation, but when exhaustion hits, she looks on the brink of breaking. Yet when she walks out of the water in her spacesuit like Aphrodite emerging from the surf, triumphant after completing a tough exercise, it’s clear that she’s driven to succeed not just by her own dreams, but for her potential to inspire her daughter, and countless other young women to come.
Just as everything in Sarah’s life seems tougher than in Emma’s, Winocour’s filming style is also rougher than that of Away creator Andrew Hinderaker. Away is all clean lines and bright palettes, but Proxima provides darker, smaller-scale shots that evoke feelings of isolation, like Stella sneaking off during an event to explore a museum dedicated to space exploration, and standing alone in a darkened, synthetic moonscape.
Sarah is tasked with recording some of her experiences for social media, and the footage gives a sort of shaky-cam feel to sections of the film that make her rigorous training even more jarring. There are also quieter moments that feel like home videos showing Sarah exploring the area around her training facility, or Stella having new adventures without her. She’s absolutely adorable as she gives her mother a virtual tour of her new room with extremely detailed commentary like, “That’s a poster of horses. That’s another poster, with only one horse.”
The pain of missing out on your child’s life brings Away and Proxima closest together. “We all prepare for leaving, but that’s not the hard part,” one of Sarah’s fellow astronauts tells her. “The hard part is coming back. When you realize that life goes on without you.” While there’s always a possibility in both Away and Proxima that the astronauts will die on their missions, the real fear is that they’ll live with the knowledge that they left their daughters during formative times, and will return to find their kids have become strangers.
With Away’s cancelation, neither it or Proxima offer closure on that conflict. Yet there’s a powerful message in that uncertainty that puts both works in line with other stories about mothers letting go of their children, like Boyhood and The Kids Are All Right. Leaving the planet is a far more dramatic form of separation than watching your child go off to college, but it still requires the mothers to have faith that they’ve prepared their kids to live without them, and that their love is strong enough to survive the distance.