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Teens Deserve Better Than THE SPACE BETWEEN US (Review)

Teens Deserve Better Than THE SPACE BETWEEN US (Review)

Imagine being the only boy on Mars. Imagine being born there–an accident birthed by an astronaut, raised by scientists, worlds away from other kids. Your childhood would lack simple wonders Earth children take for granted, like rain failing on their skin, wind brushing their faces, and the simple joys of playing outside. This is the extraordinary origin of The Space Between Uss eccentric hero, Gardner Elliot, a 16-year-old boy who dreams of leaving the only home he’s ever known to fall to Earth, find love, and seek the father he’s never known. It’s a premise rich with potential. Sadly, its filmmakers squander audience patience with a bloated runtime and overwrought first act.

The plot centers on Gardner (a doe-eyed Asa Butterfield), but the film takes an astonishingly long time to get to its hero. Before he’s even born, The Space Between Us presents not one, not two, but three business meetings featuring Nathaniel Shepherd (a floppy-haired and chicly spectacled Gary Oldman), who is essentially the Steve Jobs of a private company that’s building a colony called East Texas on Mars.

SpaceBetweenUs-Oldman

Audiences are subjected to Shepherd’s showy press conference for the project, including the introduction of a charming female astronaut who promises to try not to make any mistakes on this first crucial mission! Cut to her puking into an airsick bag aboard her shuttle, and realizing too late she’s pregnant. There’s more meetings to discuss what to do about this unexpected stowaway, then (at last!) comes Gardner’s birth, followed immediately by his mother’s gruesome death. Next, The Space Between Us inexplicably jumps 16 years in time, completely skipping this kid’s incredibly unique childhood.

It’s 2034, and the motherless infant is now a moody teen who can hack his robot buddy’s brain, sneak through the air ducts to raid the lockers of East Texas’ scientists, and ride recklessly on Mars’ surface in the universe’s most expensive dune buggy. But Gardner longs for Earth and a snarky teen girl called Tulsa (a spirited Britt Robertson), whom he is somehow able to instant message from space. (Perhaps by 2034, when the film is set, NASA has vastly accelerated interplanetary communication speeds?) Still, the film doesn’t really get moving until the powers that be decide to give this boy a shot at the only planet he’s ever wanted to live on. There’s health concerns, so a montage races through a series of extreme surgeries, intensive physical training, and a seven-month spaceship trip. Only then can Gardner’s story enter its second act.

Once the boy finally lands on Earth, The Space Between Us finds its focus. A fish out of water, Gardner approaches everything from smirking drifters to rain storms, department stores, and galloping horses with an undeniably adorable drop-jawed awe. Once he and Tulsa run away on a road trip–with Shepherd and his crew in hot pursuit–the central romance heats up at last. Thankfully, Robertson has enough charisma to carry this section’s clunkier scenes. She also does much of the heavy-lifting in the romance arc, allowing her tough girl’s slowly revealed softer side to shimmer like the Grand Canyon at sunrise. While Gardner has the intellect of a NASA scientist, he’s got the emotional education of a child. This mars the romance a bit as Tulsa sometimes seems more babysitter than girlfriend. Still, theirs is a story that will offer sweet solace and cathartic escapism to the girls for which this movie was clearly made.

space-between-us-grand-canyon

Gardner is an odd duck. He’s book-smart but naive. He’s guileless, kind, and says exactly what he’s thinking, telling Tulsa that she’s beautiful without any embarrassment or decorum. This flusters her, in part because he doesn’t “lie like everybody else.” Gardner is the dream boy who will save this jaded girl from the heartbreak and cynicism she fears will swallow her whole. He is the salvation many lonely girls dreams of. And in The Space Between Us, he is simple, sweet and soft, a safe space for girls to rest their romantic aspirations, a hope to hang on to when boys in real life are confoundingly cruel. Better still, Tulsa is a positive role model. Sure, she commits a few car thefts along the way to the film’s big climax. But at her core, she’s caring, brave, and resilient. If she can just make it through this tough time, she’s promised love and happiness.

As a grown-up, I roll my eyes at Allan Loeb‘s schmaltzy and superficial script with its thinly sketched characters and aching earnestness. But by the time Tulsa and Gardner’s relationship culminates, I realized a 13- or 14-year-old me would have loved this sci-fi romance with a bruised but eager heart. Teen girls are an underserved market in cinema, and I admire that Loeb and director Peter Chelsom strove to give them a story they could cling to. Regrettably, the film loses steam is in the painfully predictable “Where’s Gardner’s Daddy?” arc, which ripples throughout trying in vain to pull in adults, who are unlikely to turn out for a movie marketed this intently as a teen drama.

To Chelsom’s credit, The Space Between Us is beautiful, lush with color from landscapes of green and yellow trees, turquoise beeches with white sands, and Martian fields of red, red sand. The soundtrack is full of rousing female voices belting tunes to secretly shimmy by. And Robertson is religiously attired in enviably cool gear, from perfectly frayed jeans and edgy leather jackets to a radiant blue sundress perfect for a life-changing date. It’s just a shame that this teen romance takes so painfully long to get to the heart of the matter.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

2.5 burritos

Images: STX Entertainment

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