Lucy Cola finds herself flung out of space. No, she’s not looking across a martini and into Carol Aird’s eyes, feeling a pang of lesbian longing and the uneasy lightheaded-ness of love at first sight. Lucy becomes discombobulated struggles to regain her footing after flying high in outer space. She is literally flung of space and thrown back into her ordinary humdrum living.
Landing on Earth renders Lucy lightheaded, breathless, and unsure of her place on this world after living her dream and touching the stars. As Lucy grows restless and her mood darkens, so too does the film. Lucy in the Sky navigates the extremes of its character’s psychology to challenge the constraints of the world in contrast to the limitlessness of human endeavor. It’s a surreal ride into uncharted terrain.
Lucy in the Sky loosely and liberally draws inspiration from the case of astronaut Lisa Nowak, the one who allegedly wore space diapers when attempting a kidnapping over a NASA love triangle. (The diapers, unfortunately, don’t make the film.) Natalie Portman plays Lucy and gives a fearless performance as the astronaut crumbles within herself before completely flying off the rails.
Not a lot happens in Lucy in the Sky. Be prepared to grow restless with Lucy as she tussles with her self-worth and identity. Lucy is a slow burn of a movie, like a South Korean horror that bides its time before shit hits the fan. There are many scenes of tests, rehearsals, and trials as the type-A perfectionist astronaut proves her worth amidst of sea of new recruits vying for her seat on the next mission.
She indulges in an affair with her co-worker Mark (Jon Hamm), threatening her marriage to Drew (an unrecognizable Dan Stevens), but feeling alive only when breaking her girl-next-door persona and living wild with Mark. Her workplace is rife with sexism despite her recent accomplishment. The men can adjust on their own terms, drinking and meeting their personal bests as they please, while the team hold’s Lucy to a higher standard that reminds her a woman’s best is never enough in a male-dominated field.
The film takes a very dark turn in its final act. Lucy cracks under the strain of her perfectionism after she’s already surpassed the limits of the sky. Portman pushes the character to extremes. She shows glimpses of the volatility that won her an Oscar for Black Swan but injecting it with surreal tragicomedy. Hamm, meanwhile, is sleazy fun as Lucy’s lover, the object of her jealousy, and the catalyst for her shrinking sense of inadequacy. Ellen Burstyn rounds out the supporting cast playing Lucy’s quick-witted grandmother and another source of the anti-heroine’s mental breakdown.
The film, like Lucy, is a moody and shape-shifting beast. Director Noah Hawley conveys Lucy’s fragile psychology by manipulating the aspect ratio of the image from beginning to end. The film widens Lucy’s horizon as the euphoria of outer space elevates her. Hawley then tightens the view to academy ratio when Lucy’s on Earth, constrained, restricted, and yearning to be free. The morphing aspect ratio is a shrewd visualization of Lucy’s mind, but it’s a risky choice. The changes sometimes occur between scenes while other moments widen the image mid-action. When the latter happens, the moving bars and changing frames often prove distracting. But when the ruse is effective, it’s a brilliant expression of Lucy’s suffocation as the world constricts around her.
Love it or loathe it, one can’t deny Lucy in the Sky its originality. This ambitious feature debut by Hawley (TV’s Fargo and Legends) is as far out as an astronaut who can touch the stars. The film stands out among the crop of American films at TIFF this year as one of the few risk-takers. Any motivated leap is prone to its trials and errors. There aren’t many films like Lucy in the Sky. This strange unfamiliarity makes Lucy’s downward spiral an awkward, difficult, and sometimes anxiety-inducing experience. But this character lives for exploring uncharted terrain. More often than not, it’s a thrill to step into the dark with her.