Summer Movies

In Asteroid City, Kids Have Questions & No One Has Answers

Becoming a father at 54 meant facing the abyss, so Wes Anderson made a movie about it.

Asteroid City seems to have critics divided. If you’re a Wes Anderson appreciator, as I generally am, you’ll probably find something soothing about how very Wes Anderson this movie is. It’s also beautifully tight at 1 hour 40 minutes. Even when it drags momentarily, it’s never laborious.

In true Andersonian fashion, the movie has several different layers of reality (a play within a TV show and the development of said play) and tells the story of a motley group who descend, for various reasons, on a dusty Western city in the 1950s. In the confines of his usual trappings (favorite actors, structures and style), Wes Anderson squints into the desert sun and reckons with the abyss. The movie feels like a meticulously layered expression of Anderson’s own interrogation of reality and meaning.

The highly-stylized director became a father in 2016, in his mid-50s (kind of a trend lately, I guess). He said himself that, before that, he’d never given much thought to his own mortality. Asteroid City tells me he sure is thinking about it now. Parenthood has a way of doing that to us. We watch our children catapult out of babydom and into kindergarten in a blink — we see how fast it all goes and we’re not allowed to look away.

Critics have written about the film as a meditation on grief, lost loves, the purpose and possibility of art. It’s about that. But I think this movie is its best self when seen as a deep exploration of how having kids forces you to reckon with the big questions.

The other day, I was rocking my son in the hammock. “I don’t want you and dad to die,” he said, rather casually considering the subject matter. I kept rocking him. “I don’t plan to.” I said. I almost stopped there. I know he knows I’m going to die one day. We’ve covered this. But, maybe he wants to pretend today? I tried to guess what he wanted from me right then.

After a pause, a few more sways of the hammock, I added: “Not for a very long time.”

At the heart of Asteroid City is the story of Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his four children. Three little girls and a boy, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), on the cusp of a teenage bloom.

Augie hasn’t yet told the children that their mother died three weeks ago. When their car breaks down upon their arrival in Asteroid City, where they’ve stopped to drop Woodrow at the Junior Stargazers convention, Augie phones his father-in-law, Stanley. He needs a ride, and no, he hasn’t had a chance to tell the kids yet. “The time is never right,” Stanley says, insisting Augie tell them. Which he does. Woodrow suspected, the girls seem OK-ish, and take the tupperware with their mother’s ashes in it gingerly from their father. They spend most of the movie burying it, laying flowers around it and tending to it in a way that’s oddly tender. Their childlike wonder and acceptance of the moment is at the crux of it all, I think.

This is just the beginning, though. As we bounce between realities — a black-and-white world where Asteroid City is a play in varying stages of evolution — the cast of characters grows. Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter arrive, love interests for Augie and Woodrow, respectively. A group of cowboys, complete with banjos and boots, sits off to the side of the local motel, run by Steve Carrell. A school teacher with 10 little charges arrives to witness the “astronomical ellipses,” a cosmic event best seen (apparently) from the center of the crater, which is also a keynote event of the Junior Stargazers conference.

The adults are lost, largely, in their own heads. Their work, their grief, and ennui occupies them. Stanley mourns his daughter; Augie mourns, too, and flails, having to explain her death — to explain death at all — to his children. Midge is a famous actress, bored by her work and failing — she says — as a mother. The military General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), who hosts the event, seems to carry a lifetime of regret, and clings to the comfort of procedure. Adults are in charge, for now.

Everyone in Asteroid City gathers to witness the ellipses. They do indeed see it — three red dots, illuminated one-by-one, only viewed safely with a large cardboard box over your head. And then, during the expected cosmic event, an alien drops in. Everything goes green and silent as they all lift their viewing boxes and watch with their own, unshielded eyes. What else can they do?

It’s cataclysmic. A collective moment of anticipated wonder becomes one of true awe. Genuine shock stuns the adults out of their heads, momentarily, into a state not unlike the one their stargazing children seem to inhabit naturally.

The alien takes what he came for and goes. Quarantine ensues.

From there, we watch the characters all sit with what they’ve seen, and with quarantine. The adults squirm, and meander. They drink martinis out of a vending machine in the middle of the day. The school teacher tries to proceed with her lessons with only a vague acknowledgement of what they saw.

While the adults are busy with their various distractions — protocol, love affairs, drinking — the Junior Stargazers keep their eyes to the sky. It’s the littlest children, mostly, who speak the obvious questions out loud. Where is the alien from? What does he want? What does it all mean?

Only the kids are asking the good questions, because only the children are unencumbered enough to do so. Try as they might to fill the air with grown-up practicalities, the adults cannot escape the blunt truth that the children present to them relentlessly: That they, too, wonder. And that they, too, have only questions, not answers.

Squirming in the discomfort of the unknown, the adults fall back on work, hobbies, protocols — anything to ignore the uncertainty that they find themselves in. In contrast, the children remain curious. Without answers, they dwell comfortably in questions.

What is reality? And do any of us really know? With Asteroid City, Anderson reminds us that the Junior Stargazers just may be the ones who see it all most clearly.