A delightful meditation on childhood in the summer of 1969 set literally in the shadows of NASA’s central operations in Houston, Richard Linklater’s contemplative and vividly animated Apollo 10 ½ A Space Age Childhood reflects on the filmmaker’s own experiences. It captures the joy and wonder of childhood through the eyes of Stan (voiced by Milo Coy as a child and, as an adult, a restrained and wise Jack Black), a ten-year-old who fantasizes about being recruited for “space camp” by NASA. His father (Bill Wise), a frugal but caring man, has uprooted his family from the city to a newly built suburban development in the shadow of the Astrodome and Astroworld amusement parks. Black’s adult narrator fills in the blanks for us with whimsical, nostalgic details that highlight just how dangerous childhood can be between abusive coaches, parents that thought nothing of allowing the kids to ride in the back of a pick-up truck at 70 miles an hour, and playing with explosives.

The first animated feature for Linklater in sixteen years, Apollo is a leap from the shaky rotoscope of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, creating a clean image that recalls fellow Austinite Keith Maitland’s Tower. Here, too, Linklater and animation lead Mike Blizzard animate period-specific TV footage and home movies curated from an open call within the Houston area. The film fondly remembers a time when everything was new and the world was full of hope as the suburbs of Houston became home for innovation at NASA. The space race was everywhere in the culture, from the architecture of the playgrounds to cheesy car-dealership ads. It’s a shame for Stan his dad is a lonely shipping and receiving clerk. His mother (Lee Eddy) juggles graduate school and raising a family of four with precision and efficiency. The film remembers details small and large: summer jobs, canned hams that were remixed into various meals for days, and (of course) a trip to Astroworld on July 20, 1969.

After the trip, the family struggles to stay awake while watching the moon walk, leading to an observation from Stan’s father: despite his disappointment that he won’t be able to tell his grandkids he saw the landing, he’ll believe he did because “that’s how memory works.” Herein lies Apollo‘s magic, which is forward-looking but also evokes political instability of the era. For kids in the suburbs it all seems like the world is happening through the lens of the TV screen and that an assassination, a war, an uprising, and everything else is going on somewhere else out in the world. Only sister Vicky (Natalie L’Amoreaux) is wise to struggles of the day, finding herself pulled into the hippies during a campus trip with mom. Linklater takes time to acknowledge that some outspoken figures were more concerned with problems on earth, in the inner city, than space exploration.

Apollo 10½ recalls the music of Bruce Springsteen: infused with optimism and desire to tell a story of hard work, dedication, and a healthy childhood fantasy. The film may be Linklater’s warmest and most nostalgic precisely because of its specifics, including the difference between two grandmothers: the one that took the kids to see The Sound of Music every six months and the one who becomes fascinated with all kinds of radical conspiracy theories that are over their heads. As a kid, these are afternoons you take for granted even if they’ll indelibly leave an imprint on your memory.

As in Boyhood, Linklater has mastered the ability to empathize with kids that are just starting to understand the world around them. In a more restricted perspective that uses animation to create a dreamlike world captured in home videos and faded photographs you’d find while cleaning out your grandmother’s attic, it beautifully recalls a Houston suburb full of young families and unfinished streets that became an endless playground for young Stan and friends. Anything is possible in a happy childhood, including being recruited by NASA simply because they accidentally made the lunar module just a little too small and you have been identified as a skillful kickball player.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood premiered at SXSW 2022 and arrives on Netflix on April 1.

Grade: B+

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