Warning: this post is a rant that probably runs lengthier than it needed to.
Basically I'm only speaking on this film because I looked at some of the critics' reviews of it, and I don't quite understand why they all seemed to give it two thumbs down. I in fact enjoyed The Space Between Us, and while I'd agree that it wasn't the best movie ever made (which of course not all movies need to be in order for them to be enjoyable), I find some of the critics' comments unfair.
The main point is sentiment. Sentiment is a weird word since it can simply refer to emotions or it can refer to excessive focus on emotions. Critics complained about this movie being too sappy, for including a teen love story and for including tragedy. (Odd enough, they criticized its tear-jerker status while I did not consider this movie a tear-jerker at all. I thought it was more of a power message. Just because a character might die in a story doesn't mean that that story is necessarily sad.) Here is my question: what is wrong with portraying emotions in fiction? What is wrong with sentiment?
It seems appropriate here to mention that I don't care at all for films like The Notebook. I find those boring. And I can only watch the standard Hallmark movies if I'm really trying to avoid doing something else. So it isn't as though I have a history of enjoying the mass-marketed sappy material of fiction (I don't read much genre fiction, either). But I don't think that The Space Between Us was the standard mass-marketed YA love story that the critics were all complaining about.
The trailer certainly made it look like a YA love story. But I'm not convinced that it was (this could lead to an entire conversation about what it means for something to be YA). My main reason for this is that I don't think the film is from Gardner's perspective (or Tulsa's). He's the main character, yes, but the perspective of what you come away with after the movie is over pertains more to Nathaniel Shepherd's perspective and somewhat also to Kendra's--that is, the two adult main characters.
Sure, there are some nice little sequences of Gardner's wish to visit Earth to be around people his age and then of him being so thrilled about every little thing that he experiences on Earth. I don't find it necessary to ignore the sweetness of the way in which he falls in love with Tulsa: fiction, even teen-centered fiction, rarely shows the sweetness of love. Passion, yes. Newness, yes. But sweetness not so much. Gardner's love is sweet and innocent and altogether positive, and that's refreshing to see, as is his general optimism toward life and toward every person that he meets. I'll take this moment to appreciate Asa Butterfield's acting skills; even the critics couldn't ignore all that he was able to do with this role.
However. Despite Gardner leading the film in many ways, the story comes down to something more than a teenager wanting to become part of a community of peers. It's Shepherd's story of the vision that he had--and of the unexpected detail that came in and threatened to destroy or at least forever change that vision. He tries to flee the truth for many years, to flee what he must do--but in the end when all the pieces fall in and he stops fleeing, he is relieved and even glad. Kendra has a similar story on a lesser level. She's trying to move on with her dreams after something happened to bring the potential for sadness--and along the way she discovers a new focus to bring her joy and fulfillment. So the heart of the film (sorry, I couldn't resist throwing in that phrase) is in fact how the adults come to terms with certain aspects of their lives, set against or in terms of their relationship with the two teenagers.
The critics who mentioned the uneven writing of this film were more on target, the way I see it. With some tweaking here and there, the main point or theme could have been more obvious and more focused. Or the film wouldn't have jumped from sci-fi to YA to family drama but rather kept a consistent blend of the three throughout. I don't mind the dialogue, however. This brings us back to sentiment. I don't mind lines about fear and courage or about falling in love. If they're nice lines, I don't care if they're sentimental because don't we praise fiction for portraying emotions? An entirely different subject matter, but wasn't I just praising the opera Madama Butterfly for its excessive portrayal of tragic emotion? Opera is what you would call fine art--so why is a movie considered extremely low art for excessive emotion? (Note: I am not calling this movie fine art, nor am I drawing a direct comparison between it and the above opera.)
I enjoyed this movie because it was fun to watch, the actors were good, and it made me think about the human condition. About living, about relationships between people, about how much we give back to the world that gives us what we have and what we experience. I didn't love it for the love story because the love story was only one almost small aspect of the film--and even it was more important because of what it said about Gardner and Tulsa as individuals rather than as two people falling in love. And parent/child relationships were more central to the film as a whole than romantic relationships. So you know what? There is nothing wrong with film portraying the sentiment of various types of human relationships--because these are often the most important aspects of life, and art explores life.
Sentiment or sentimentality? I guess one calls something sentimentality if it is sentiment that one prefers not to dwell on. One person's sentimentality can simply be another person's sentiment.