The Prime Video feature wants to tell a story that everyone can feel good about. But the attempt to make the most likable movie ever results in a movie that’s hard to love.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
A Million Miles Away is one of those movies that live in the meaty part of the decent curve. Far too sturdy and well-made to be called bad. Too rote and predictable to really call good. It tells the true story of José Hernández (Michael Pena), an unquestionably inspiring man who did an impossibly difficult thing under impossibly difficult circumstances.
Born into a family of migrant farmers, Hernández was an itinerant grade school student. He traveled from school to school with his parents as they cycled up and down the West Coast and into Mexico following crop rotations. His family was saving up money to buy a home in La Piedad. (And it is his whole family, as he, his parents, and siblings work in the fields.) But when a teacher in Stockton points out how special José is, they put their dreams on hold and set down roots in California so their son can transcend his humble circumstances.
And transcend he does, earning a master’s degree and landing a sweet job at a research center. But it’s not all smooth sailing, as Hernández is immediately relegated to a tiny office with a broken chair and cooked lightbulbs to do what’s essentially administrative busywork. But does he give up?
I shouldn’t have to tell you that he does not. Instead, he marches down to the front desk to get maintenance to do something about that lightbulb. When he gets there, though, the secretary thinks he’s the new maintenance man and gives him a set of keys to all the rooms in the building and a litany of instructions about what his duties will be. Hernández makes lemonade out of those lemons. He uses the keys during non-office hours to work on projects the company has kept him from. When his boss finds him in a lab and demands to know what he’s doing, Hernández points out a mistake the other engineers missed in their computations for a satellite. The boss immediately realizes the error of his ways and makes sure Hernández has a place on the team.
This sort of thing happens a lot in A Million Miles Away. People are either indifferent or hostile to Hernández until he puts his head down and really proves his worth. Then, the antagonist does a complete one-eighty and assists him in achieving his dream. It’s a lovely sentiment, but dramatically not very satisfying.
For instance, take his boss. While dismissive of Hernández, he never says or does anything overtly racist. But that’s obviously what it is, right? It’s never explicitly stated AND also the only thing it could have been. Especially that shit about him being a janitor. But all Hernández has to do is catch a mistake in their math for the whole office to embrace him.
[A Million Miles Away] might have been more if it had just let itself shed some of its sweetness and tolerance and let out more of the anger and conflict bubbling underneath.
Look, maybe that’s how it happened. Maybe everyone realized their mistake, and Hernández didn’t feel any kind of lingering resentment about his treatment. But it seems unlikely, doesn’t it?
Movies like A Million Miles Away often operate in a weird, contradictory state. They both lionize America as a land of opportunity for people who apply themselves and seethe that such a prosperous country could make achieving that dream so hard for so many people. As inspirational as the movie is, there’s a real undercurrent of anger at all the obstacles thrown in Hernández’s way and how much he and the people he cared about had to sacrifice just to get by, let alone excel. But it never lets itself actually express that anger. There’s no scene where Hernández confronts a racist antagonist, rages out to his wife Adela (Rosa Salazar), or even by himself. He keeps smiling and plugging away, and things turn his way sooner or later.
There are a couple of scenes where Adela gets mad at him for being thoughtless or away too much or whatever. But she always simmers down, and he always apologizes, promises to do better, and then does. Honestly, it seems like a healthy marriage. Pena and Salazar, both immensely likable, have real chemistry together. But it’s just not interesting.
For instance, Adela wants to open her own restaurant. Still, she selflessly puts her dream on hold so her husband can get the training he needs to qualify to be an astronaut. Then, later in the movie, Hernández jogs past an empty storefront. In the next scene, Adela has her restaurant! Hooray! That’s genuinely great for the real Adela and José Hernández. It’s good that she didn’t have to put her needs on hold indefinitely. It’s good he supported her as she supported him. But it’s not very interesting. By the movie’s end, pretty much everyone has what they want and are friends. People who actively discriminate against him at work later dance at his wedding.
And again, none of this is to say that A Million Miles Away is a bad movie. It’s good-looking, well-acted, and genuinely effective at times. It tells a lovely story about an important topic and argues for compassion and understanding. It will almost certainly be a mainstay in middle and high school classrooms across the country, and students won’t be too bored watching it. But that’s all it is. And it might have been more if it had just let itself shed some of its sweetness and tolerance and let out more of the anger and conflict bubbling underneath.
Everybody will know the ending of A Million Miles Away walking in. They don’t make inspirational dramas about migrant farming children who don’t achieve their lifelong dream of going to space. Since we all know where we’re gonna end up, a few fun twists and bumps along the way would have been nice.
A Million Miles Away is spacewalking in select theatres now and will achieve lift off on Prime Video September 15.