Richard Linklater is so good at evoking nostalgia in movies like Boyhood and Dazed and Confused that he can make viewers feel a pensive longing for a time and place they never even experienced. He achieves that effect again in Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, which could form the first part of a loose trilogy with Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, charting Linklater's Texas coming-of-age from his preteen years through college.
As in those other two movies, there's no character in Apollo 10 1/2 named Richard Linklater, but young protagonist Stan (Milo Coy) is clearly a Linklater stand-in. Per the title, Stan is 10 and a half years old in 1969, when the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon. He fancies himself the first American on the moon, though, in fantasy sequences that open the movie and return in its second half. Jack Black voices the adult version of Stan, narrating Apollo 10 1/2 in warm, wistful tones that make it sound a bit like an audiobook version of a long-lost memoir.
The visual style adds to that feel, returning to the rotoscope animation that Linklater used on Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, albeit with a more polished CGI sheen. Despite its storybook imagery and family-friendly tone, Apollo 10 1/2 isn't really a kids' movie, and Black gets far more lines than Coy as he talks through nearly the entire first half of the movie. After introducing the whimsical idea that Stan has been recruited by NASA to test a lunar landing module that has accidentally been built too small, Apollo 10 1/2 backtracks so that the older Stan can reminisce about life in the Houston suburbs in the late 1960s, with a winning specificity that makes every moment feel genuine.
Linklater clearly has fond memories of even the most questionable aspects of growing up during this era, although he doesn't shy away from acknowledging civil unrest, environmental destruction and racial inequality. Older Stan frames all of these from a kid's perspective, as events happening on TV in some far-away adult world, while kids played in front yards, visited amusement parks and practiced duck-and-cover drills without the consequences ever sinking in.
Stan is the youngest of six kids, and his father (Bill Wise) works in one of the less glamorous positions at NASA, in charge of shipping and receiving. Linklater sketches out fairly minimal character development for the members of Stan's family, but he conveys plenty in small moments, including a funny scene of Stan's mom (Lee Eddy) attempting to discern who is and is not a hippie on the nearby college campus. Linklater fills the movie with period pop culture artifacts, to the point where several scenes simply involve Black listing the names of TV series or movies. But each one of those references is chosen lovingly, with the sense that Linklater places enormous value on every film, board game and breakfast cereal shown on screen.
Black's narration scales back in the movie's second half, which focuses on the Apollo 11 mission itself. Linklater intersperses scenes of Stan's fantasy space voyage with the experience of watching the actual launch and subsequent landing. He captures the mix of the mundane and the momentous, as not everyone views this milestone as a top priority (Stan's oldest sister calls it "historically boring"). Apollo 10 1/2 is less about the moon landing than it is about the experience of being a kid, placing it alongside cinematic memory pieces from A Christmas Story to Alfonso Cuaron's Roma. Its plotless meandering is an essential element of its charm. ♦APOLLO 10 1/2: A SPACE AGE CHILDHOOD