'Kepler’s Dream' Is Smart and Deeply Tender
Kepler’s Dream is a genuine throwback to the family mystery-adventures of the 70s and 80s. But it feels modern too… or perhaps “timeless” is a better word, because its themes are universal and the story pays homage to every kid’s desire to be solve mysteries. What’s more, it’s one of the few tween flicks that’s not about post-apocalyptic strife, sci-fi heroes, or a doomed romance. It’s simply an intelligent, sincere story about a realistic child set in the everyday world. (And there’s not a single pixel of CGI!)
Eleven-year-old Ella (Isabella Blake-Thomas) is a city girl forced to spend the summer on the vast New Mexico ranch of her rich and reclusive grandmother, Violet Von Stern (Holland Taylor). That’s because Ella’s mom (Kelly Lynch) is undergoing experimental chemotherapy, and is confined to an out-of-state hospital. Her parents are divorced, and Ella’s dad says he’s too busy to take her. So, off Ella goes. Her nana’s ranch is so remote that Ella needs to take a small plane to get there. On top of all that, she’s never met her grandmother before! Once they meet, Ella quickly dubs the dowager “G.M.” for General Major. As Ella tries to cope with G.M.’s strict rules and snooty circle of bookworm friends, she begs her long-distance dad Walt (Sean Patrick Flanery) to come rescue her. But Walt has his own reasons to steer clear of his childhood home.
Meanwhile, Ella finds allies in ranch hand Miguel (Steven Michael Quezada) and his daughter, Rosie (Esperanza Fermin). They show Ella how to ride a horse – which doesn’t go especially well! Without Wi-Fi access, Ella is left to explore G.M.’s quirky abode, which is filled with Southwestern art, animal trophies, and books, with one, Kepler’s Dream, greatly rare and valuable.
The adventure kicks off when the priceless antique book is stolen from Violet’s library. Miguel becomes the key suspect, and Ella knows that’s simply not true. She decides that she must find the real thief in order to save her friend… not knowing that solving the crime will reveal other surprising truths and change lives.
Adapted from a YA novel of the same name, the movie is very well-cast. You like – or appropriately dislike – each and every character the way you’re supposed to, but without feeling forced. Ella, of course, is our heroine, and Blake-Thomas is perfectly believable as a clever little girl who’s found herself in a difficult, lonely, and scary (her mom is, after all, suffering from cancer) situation. But she handles it all with strength and a touch of humor. She’s not today’s stereotype of a texting back-talker, nor is she a pint-sized adult; Ella seems like a real kid. Taylor is equally excellent as the regal grandmother who’s not especially fond of youngsters and their curiosity (her bedroom door remains locked and is a strict “off limits” zone to Ella), but eventually she warms to her estranged son’s only daughter.
In the third act of the film, there’s a tonal shift – from family drama and dynamics to full-on “Nancy Drew.” I do wish the suspense and mystery had been sprinkled throughout the story from close to the beginning, but even so: Kepler’s Dream is one of the best live action kid’s movies to come out this year.
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