The power of nostalgia can be irresistible. Not the simple jolt of seeing a favorite childhood character come back in another movie in your adulthood. No, it’s the real, potent nostalgia of reliving an authentic experience. Against my better judgment, that feeling swept me away in multi-hyphenate extraordinaire Richard Linklater’s latest. Despite not growing up in the 1960s, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood serves as an authentic love letter to my hometown of Houston, Texas.
Ostensibly, there is an overarching plot to Apollo 10 1/2, though it’s hardly the focus. Two NASA officials (Glen Powell and Zachary Levi) approach exceptional child Stanley (Milo Coy) to pilot a test flight to the moon. The reason? They built the lander too small. There you have the bones of a decent romp about a kid becoming an astronaut. While there’s some of that, Linklater spends barely a tenth of the screentime on that. Instead, Apollo 10 1/2 is a reflection by an adult Stanley (Jack Black providing narration) on a formative time in his and Houston’s lives.
Animated in stunning rotoscope techniques, the past of Houston springs to life like never before. The suburban developments and refineries that surround the city, familiar visages such as the Alabama Theater… Astroworld! No one has portrayed our city like this, even if the filmmakers shot indoors at Austin’s Troublemaker Studios by necessity. Houstonians are sure to get a huge kick out of sorting through in their heads where these locales are. To my surprise, many of them are still here, only different. For example, the Alabama Theater is now a Trader Joe’s! I don’t know how to feel about that!
Furthermore, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood nails the character of Houston. The impending launch of Apollo 11 makes NASA the prime business in town. Kids will do anything to beat the heat in the summer. A changing political climate sparks a variety of conflicting viewpoints. One of the conflicts is depicted when the family sits down to watch the Apollo 11 broadcast, only for a program with a young Gloria Steinem lambasting the use of funds for the space program. The father, of course, being employed by NASA, scoffs at the remarks, but Stanley’s older sister smiles in recognition. It’s a small moment that’s representative of the changing of the tides.
Nevertheless, Apollo 10 1/2 is at its best when zeroing in on this one specific family. Other than Jack Black and NASA operatives, the cast of the film is little to unknown. This helps the vignettes of Stanley’s life go down easier. And they really should be categorized as vignettes. Apollo 10 1/2 floats between half and vividly remembered stories of Stanley’s childhood. Whether it be an injury, a first crush, a bike ride, or merely an impactful conversation, each story crackles with the kind of dream-like recollection that can only come from formative moments. On the surface, there’s not a lot of universality to Stanley’s story. Yet, the extreme specificity of his life story has the benefit of mining extreme empathy from its audience.
Though his career may be long and varied, at his core Linklater is a humanist. Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is the kind of film that never gets made anymore. Filmmakers concern themselves so much with trying to say so much with their films that they forget simply translating lived experience can sometimes be enough. This isn’t Linklater writing what he knows, it’s spilling his full soul into a chronicle of an experience that, to him, meant a lot. For Houstonians and film lovers alike, it’s well worth listening to what Mr. Linklater has to say. – James Preston Poole
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is now playing in select theaters and will be available on Netflix April 1st.