Perhaps that’s because the screenplay from Abella, Bettina Gilois, and Hernán Jiménez is based on Hernández’s memoir, which features the words “Inspiring Story” right there in the title. Perhaps this approach is intended to make the movie accessible to the largest, most family-friendly audience possible, which is an understandable goal. But in telling Hernández’s unlikely story of space flight in such a straightforward fashion, the result feels a little earthbound.
We first see José as a boy of about seven (played by the appealing Juanpi Monterrubio), traveling in the late 1960s with his family from Michoacán, Mexico, to California. There, they’ll work the fields in towns like Stockton and Salinas, and Abella establishes an engaging pace as she introduces them and the rhythms of their lives. Kids in school tease José for his accent, but he quickly reveals that he’s the sharpest of them all, especially when it comes to math. His sympathetic teacher (touchingly played by Michelle Krusiec), who sees children like José come and go with the agricultural seasons, recognizes something special in him and urges his family to stay a while.
From here, “A Million Miles Away” hits familiar chronological biopic beats. We see José graduating from the University of the Pacific with an engineering degree and meeting the woman who will become his wife and the mother of his five children (Rosa Salazar). He works his way up the ranks as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory despite the not-so-subtle racism he endures from his colleagues. And he keeps applying to the NASA space program and getting rejected, year after year—until the year he finally makes it.
Salazar is the film’s low-key MVP as the family’s anchor, Adela, bringing a grounded authenticity and sparky comic timing. But Peña is way too old to be playing this figure over such a long span of time. It’s especially distracting when the actor, who’s in his late forties, portrays Hernández as a recent college graduate in his early twenties, with very little in terms of hair and makeup to make the transition believable. Robert De Niro in “The Irishman,” this is not.
“A Million Miles Away” hints at the possibility of greater thematic depth, though. As everyone around him underestimates him, José wrestles with assimilation in this predominately white environment in very specific ways—the music he plays, the lunch he eats—until he realizes his heritage is what gives him strength. It’s a powerful message, regardless of where your family is from, but especially for recent immigrants. And it suggests a complexity and depth of emotion that are missing elsewhere.