“Is there Wi-Fi here?” asked 11-year old Ella. “Over my dead body,” replied grandmother Violet in a straight-laced tone that pretty much sums up a budding summer relationship in “Kepler’s Dream.”
Like most films in this genre, “Kepler’s Dream” is lyrically cadenced to a slower, measured pace. Based on the acclaimed novel by Juliet Bell and helmed by Amy Glazer, the heartfelt drama unites paternal neglect, motherly love, and a bit of Nancy Drew sleuthing. The feel-good family film caters unapologetically to the young and young at heart.
Forced to sell her home to pay for a stem cell cancer treatment, Amy (Kelly Lynch) explains her ‘solo medical mission’ to her daughter Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas): “I’m like Michael Collins who made the Apollo trip possible by going to the dark side of the moon all alone.”
With no money for summer camp and no luck in staying with her ‘too busy’ itinerant fisherman father, Walt (Sean Patrick Flanery), Ella is shipped off to an isolated adobe ranch she calls ‘The House of Mud’ or ‘Broken Family Camp.’ There she encounters Violet von Stern (Holland Taylor), a paternal grandmother she’s never met who doesn’t like kids.
An avid reader and rare book collector, Violet wastes no time schooling Ella on proper English and etiquette. And she does so with all the charm of a finger-pointing schoolmarm. Of course, we’ve seen this façade in other ‘healing tween’ films. There may be thorns on the stem of this old rose, but her petals conceal a warm heart.
Astronomy and a love of books form a subtext that draws Ella into her grandfather’s past. Like a stone tossed into a pond, the celestial center of “Kepler’s Dream” widens to touch virtually the entire cast, including Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada) a ranch hand who works on Violet’s property, and to his down-to-earth daughter Rosie (Esperanza Fermin).
Annoyingly bookish Abercrombie (David Hunt), a bookseller staying in Violet’s house seems suspiciously eager to separate Violet from a cherished tome entitled Kepler’s Dream. The illustrated novel written by the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler is considered to be the first published work of science fiction about reaching the moon. Ella’s grandfather was so enamored of it that he built dreams around it and planted trees to honor the stars in favor of it.
Arriving to help catalog her books is Abercrombie’s nephew, Jackson (Stafford Douglas). When Kepler’s book disappears from Violet’s library, Abercrombie deflects suspicion onto Miguel, who is so heartbroken by the accusation that he quits. The theft ignites a flurry of emotions that reveal suspicions, betrayals, and heartbreak that have burdened the family for generations. After a bit of clever sleuthing and inspiration from her grandfather’s legacy of stargazing, Ella solves the mystery.
One could say that Kepler’s book rises to the level of a character in this story. Our principal cast orbit about it and its metaphorical premise like planets about the sun: Ella reaching forward to the promise of connecting with her father; Violet, reaching back to touch the soul of her husband; and Walt reaching out to his estranged wife for redemption.
“Kepler’s Dream” arrives in theaters nationwide on December 1st.