Good-hearted nostalgia is a hallmark of Richard Linklater‘s career. Whether it’s Boyhood, Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some, or several other works, Linklater loves to look back on formative years. In particular, Boyhood as well as Dazed and Confused will always be mentioned as highlights of his filmography (alongside the Before trilogy). I firmly believe that Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is about to join that pantheon. There’s so much to love here, truly. Watching the film is an exercise in giving you over to warmth and nostalgic memories. Apollo 10½ renders it absolutely mesmerizing. Even with a meandering nature (also a Linklater hallmark), you’re roped in before too long.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is clearly one of Linklater’s most personal films. Little moments, like mentioning the construction and opening of the AstroDome, are evidence of this, while giving the movie a distinctive flavor. The quicker you give yourself over to the story of Apollo 10½, the more you end up falling for it. This is lovable work that should appeal to everyone, though Linklater lovers will obviously be even more delighted.
Set in suburban Houston during the summer of 1969, we meet Stan (voice of Milo Coy) and his family. Narrated by a grown version of himself (voice of Jack Black), the film a mixture of recollections as well as fantasy. We’re introduced to Stan’s mother (voice of Lee Eddy) as well as his father (voice of Bill Wise), plus his several siblings, be they his oldest sister Vicky (voice of Natalie L’Amoreaux) or his older brothers. Stan is the youngest, so he’s literally always looking up at them.. Their lives, their town, and the time itself, are lovingly remembered. Stan also presents a story of being recruited by NASA scientists Kranz (voice of Zachary Levi) and Bostick (voice of Glen Powell) as a lad to go on the mission to space in secret, since they need a kid to fit in the too small design of the Lunar Landing Vehicle. As he tells it, he has to secretly test out the mission before Apollo 11 can be safely launched. It’s a wild story, but fits in with his other clear exaggerations meant to make the mundane be more memorable, including the job his father has at NASA. It’s always charming, while being completely understandable.
As the grown Stan tells us the tale, we see NASA preparing for the Apollo 11 mission. There’s the work being done by the crew, as well as what Stan imagines his own participation to be. Mixed with continual stories and memories of growing up in this moment, it’s a touching a warm depiction of the influences that clearly ended up making Linklater into the storyteller that he is today. In some ways, Apollo 10½ is a thesis on all of things that he’s experienced in his formative years.
The cast are uniformly solid, though no one really stands out. The closest thing to a standout is Jack Black, since his narration is a complete constant throughout the 90 minutes or so of the flick. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood has more narration than most documentaries, but it’s never distracting. In addition to the voice talents mentioned above, the cast also includes Jessica Brynn Cohen, Sam Chipman, Samuel Davis, Mona Lee Fultz, Jennifer Griffin, Danielle Guilbot, Josh Wiggins, and more.
Richard Linklater walks an impressive tightrope here. The fantasy elements are so deftly handled with the simple charms of everyday life in 1969 Houston. You grow to love this family. Linklater has long been comfortable directing with a Rotoscope style of animation, so while this is a bit different, it’s still something he’s clearly at ease with. This, however, is the first time he’s found a story as a writer that doesn’t seem in service of the animation itself. The mixture of the mundane and the fantastical is hammered home in a third act moment that really sums it up well. Stan’s mom tells his father, when the latter is upset that this son is missing the TV coverage of the moon landing: “You know how memory works. Even if he was asleep, he’ll someday think he saw it all.” By giving voice to what we’ve always been seeing, it’s a beautiful coda that allows Linklater’s storytelling to soar to the heavens. Along with frequent collaborators in cinematographer Shane F. Kelly and editor Sandra Adair, Linklater is in a complete comfort zone.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood may be almost plotless, but by presenting such a specific yet universal recollection of childhood, Richard Linklater achieves something special here. You won’t find many films this creative while still being filled to the brim with warmth. The movie sneaks up on you in a big way. When it comes to Netflix on Friday, you’ll see why…