This small, well-crafted, coming-of-age docudrama is a real life “Revenge of the Nerds” by way of “Stand By Me.” Set during the late 1950s (the dawn of the Space Age) in a sleepy West Virginian coal mining community, the film revolves around four, branded high-school geeks, who, after being awe inspired by the Soviets launch of Spudnik, spend their after school hours immersed in rocketry.
The simplicity of the plot works to the film’s advantage, allowing the actors to forge intimate chemistries where maudlin demons might otherwise prevail. As Homer Hickam (the film is based upon the former NASA technician’s autobiography) the quartet’s catalyst, Jake Gyllenhaal is delightfully earnest. His wide-eyed teen dreams space fight, college and a life beyond the suffocating confines of the coal mines that have sapped the lives of men before him, including his indomitable father (played by Chris Cooper). Cooper who was so poignant in “Lone Star,” gives an emotionally robust performance as the noble, controlling traditionalist, caught between his compassion and male pride as he struggles with a labor insurrection at the mine and his son’s break from the family path at home. Laura Dern adds an air of femininity as the school teacher who gives the boys encouragement to enter the big, national science fair.