There’s something about a film that captures the essence of an era or time so succinctly that within the first few frames or the first bar of scoring, one is transported through the sensory ethos to a place of childhood dreams, a simpler time, a hopeful time, a time of racing bikes through the streets, stealing fireworks and heading to the lake, a time when imagination took hold and took flight. This is ROCKETSHIP. It makes your heart smile and soar; and even makes the eyes a little misty.
In small town USA, Henry Dunbar is your average kid, but seemingly a loner. He races his bicycle through the streets, but not with other kids, always alone. He saves his jars of pennies, nickels and dimes to buy old “junk” and appliances, and his best friend is an older man named Robert Braddock. A former astronaut during the days of NASA’s Gemini missions, Braddock spends his time still dreaming of the stars and space, a dream and love that Henry shares. Together that build stylized rocketships out of pieces of vintage coffee makers, automotive tail fins, radial antennas and vacuum cleaners. All gleamingly displayed in Mr. Braddock’s workshop, the ever curious Henry yearns to make them fly and under Braddock’s tutelage, learns the basics of aerodynamics, thrust, fuel, power. One look at Henry’s face as he listens to his friend and mentor, not to mention his ever-present NASA tee-shirt and his aeronautically-themed bedroom, you know in your heart that one day Henry will be soaring through the skies above.
Unfortunately, Henry’s parents aren’t too keen on his spending time with Mr. Braddock. They don’t know him and don’t want to know him. But Henry is undeterred. No one will keep him from his friend and their dreams.
As Henry, Russell Doucet steals your heart. Just one look at face and you see the perfect blend of wide-eyed wonder, blind faith and loyalty and an inquisitive curiosity that will not be squelched. You see Doucet racing his bike up Main Street and you immediately think of Mayberry and Ronny Howard’s Opie or Henry Thomas’s Elliot in Spielberg’s “E.T.” He’s a kid who’s being a kid in the purest and most decent sense of the word.
Tom Dunnington easily fills the bill as Robert Braddock. He graces the screen with an almost country charm and kindness while educating and engaging with Doucet’s Henry, but never talking down to him. There’s an unspoken joy in watching the generations bond, as well as a lesson to be learned by us all.
Written and directed by Alfred Thomas Catalfo, ROCKETSHIP has a warm simplicity not only in its story, but in the film’s design. Minimal characters. Straightforward storytelling from the heart. Simply framed shots. Catalfo taps into the dreamer and childlike wonder and innocence within us all evoking a purity of emotion that is rare. Focus is on Henry and Mr. Braddock and their bond and their shared dreams. Production values are highly polished. Jeff Spires cinematography is clean and crisp; beauteous within the Braddock workshop as lighting design captures the shiny silver gleam and every line and curve of the rocketships on display, not to mention all the as-yet-to-be-used component parts. Spires similarly keeps the visual tone light even in a cramped crowded old vacuum cleaner store, metaphorically shining a light on the past. Wonderful contrast is the Dunbar home which is modern, sharp-edged, minimalist in decor, darker in lighting, furnishings, and design. The life in ROCKETSHIP is in the nostalgic ties to the past and the film’s tonal design is consistently reflective of that.
Noteworthy is the inspiration for ROCKETSHIP - David Random and his Random Rockets. Repurposing artifacts from reclaimed antique mechanical and architectural parts, the beauty of Random’s works is in the design using pieces that seem to fit together almost as if they'd been made to. Celebrating the artistic craftsmanship of these reclaimed pieces an parts, core to Random’s design is that his “fantasy pieces” made therefrom have an “integrity that allows one's imagination to see them as something designed and made with a single aesthetic and purpose.” The result of his works are seen on screen with multiple rockets on display in the Braddock workshop. I have to believe that the awe and amazement on Russell Doucet’s face when as Henry he cautiously touches and helps create the rockets as if almost afraid to leave fingerprints, was not acting, as I think I had the same look on my face when these gleaming rocketships appeared on screen. It’s easy to see how Random’s designs would inspire Catalfo to reach for the stars with this story.
Completing the journey is Charles Carpenter’s score, harkening to notes of John Williams with a sweeping, yet soft, ebullience.
Unfettered, joyous and pure of heart, ROCKETSHIP is the stuff of which memories - and movies - are made.
Written and Directed by Alfred Thomas Catalfo
Cast: Russell Doucet, Tom Dunnington