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‘The Astronaut Farmer’ lets the family’s imagination soar

If Jimmy Stewart were alive, he would be the one cast in “The Astronaut Farmer,” a quirky, sentimental film resembling something Frank Capra might have made.

While “The Astronaut Farmer,” the story of a former NASA pilot who builds a rocket in his backyard to fulfill his fantasy, certainly is no “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the movie does offer families a chance to soar with imagination and be thoroughly entertained.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Charlie Farmer, an astronaut who had to quit NASA’s training program when his father passed away. Charlie and his family returned to Texas to run the family farm. Charlie can’t seem to get into the cowpoke mentality or ignore his longing for space travel, which explains the opening scene of the movie, where he’s riding a horse while dressed in a spacesuit.

Charlie’s loving and supportive wife, Audie (Virginia Madsen), is very tolerant of the massive rocket ship in their barn, even though it continuously pulls her husband from their family. She works at a diner to put food on the table and appreciates how Charlie has motivated their three children, Shepard (Max Thieriot), Jasper (Stanley Polish) and Sunshine (Logan Polish), with this dream project. Shepard plans to be the radio man monitoring his father’s flight around the world from a small trailer next to the barn.

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Dinners are fun at the Farmer house until Audie learns their home is in foreclosure and that Charlie has actually pulled the kids out of school to help him. Suddenly, there are hundreds of government officials and news photographers camped on the edge of the farm. The FAA has denied Charlie’s request to launch, and the townspeople think Charlie has lost it.

“Any time you contrast that with people who seem to have a normal life … you’re going to see someone who looks a little bit out on the edge,” said director and co-writer Michael Polish.

Twin brothers Michael and Mark Polish (co-writers), who are also actors, do not seem the ones to champion a film of this nature. Their debut movie, “Twin Falls Idaho,” was a dark drama about Siamese twins they also portrayed. Their next films, “Jackpot” and “Northfork,” again showed a quirkiness that was anything but family fare.

“The Astronaut Farmer” producer Paula Weinstein knew the Polish brothers not only embraced a family-friendly story, but hoped to inspire people to fulfill their dreams.

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“It’s what America is founded on, and it’s the message of this movie,” she said. “If you dream high enough and let nothing stop you … then even if it doesn’t work out, you are still fulfilled as a human being for having done your absolute best.”

Thornton, one of today’s most versatile actors, has gone from the mentally handicapped man in “Sling Blade” to a debauched Santa in “Bad Santa.” He’s a big part of why this film works. Thornton easily conveys Charlie’s optimistic spirit that encourages his children to go for their dreams.

The other reason the movie resonates is the spot-on performance by Virginia Madsen as Audie. She really upholds the “for richer or poorer” aspects of the marriage vows when Charlie finally tries to launch his ship, ends up in the hospital and is about to give up on his dream.

“What I see happen to him is what I think is going to happen to our family, because he’s a just a shell, and it has nothing to do with his physical injuries,” Madsen said. “He’s given up and his spirit is gone, and that’s when I say, ‘No you can’t give that up, you have to try again.’ ”

The three kids are also surprising in their roles. Max Thieriot (“The Pacifier”) plays the perfect son who idolizes his father, is more than willing to help him and wants to follow in his footsteps. When the launch goes wrong, Shepard feels it’s partly his fault.

Stanley Polish, daughter of Michael, and Logan Polish, daughter of Mark, were added to the cast by their fathers at the last minute. Although they hadn’t acted before, they nail their dialogue and emotional arcs like real pros.

Bruce Dern (“Coming Home”), a wonderful and talented actor, has much too little screen time as Audie’s concerned but non-intrusive father, and Bruce Willis makes a short but grounded appearance as one of Charlie’s NASA colleagues.

In addition to being inspirational, “The Astronaut Farmer” also includes comedic moments. It’s one of only a few family-appropriate movies currently showing on the big screen that will appeal to most moviegoers over 13 years old.

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“The Astronaut Farmer” is playing at AMC La Jolla 12.