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'Apollo 10 1/2' basks in memories with a 10-year-old's sense of awe

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Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood - Milo Coy as Stan. Cr: Netflix © 2022

The nostalgia industry has gotten a little sickening, and it brings me no joy to say that it’s largely driven by people nostalgic for the era I grew up in, the 1980s and ‘90s, with remakes and reboots of movies and TV shows that don’t need updating and are still easily accessible anyway.

But this is all pop culture nostalgia, and besides, it’s mostly manufactured by execs who want to make a buck on already-existing property. But what about sincere nostalgia, for a specific time and place, for something that actually has passed and that maybe we should remember rather fondly?

Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is the new film from the director Richard Linklater, who’s made movies as varied as the purely delightful Jack Black comedy School of Rock and the paranoid, drug-addled animated Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly. This new one sees Linklater returning to the rotoscope animation style he’s used a couple times before, in which the movie is shot in live action, and then traced over frame-by-frame to create a semi-realistic animated look. And here it’s beautifully controlled and nuanced, as he tells a semi-autobiographical story of a boy growing up in a Houston suburb during the hottest days of the Space Race. As with most of the families around him, this boy’s father works for NASA, and everyone is gearing up with excitement for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, which would put people on the moon for the first time. Or, we thought for the first time. The movie’s title, Apollo 10 ½, is a reference to the boy’s age, but also to the heretofore secret mission that sent that same 10-year-old boy to the moon just before Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. Because, you see, NASA accidentally built their module a little too small for grown men, and NASA officials had noticed the boy’s agility when playing dodgeball at school, so obviously he was a perfect candidate to pilot this secret scouting mission.

It's that whimsical approach that makes the movie so gently charming—Linklater mixes this obviously fantastical storyline with a generally wide-eyed and rosy picture of what it was like for him to grow up in the space age 1960s, showing this time that captured the attention and imagination of so many people around the world. One problem with nostalgia is that it sometimes makes us want to return to a time that never truly existed, but that’s not really what Linklater is doing here. Instead, he’s simply basking in his memories, showing us that world through a 10-year-old’s eyes, with a 10-year-old’s understanding and sense of awe.

Now, the movie is too long, and particularly drags when Linklater gets a little too general with his anecdotes. I do believe that his siblings really got into the Beatles, but so did everyone else’s siblings. It’s not that interesting to see what almost seems like a rote cultural inclusion in the movie, which happens more than a couple times. The whole thing shines so much more when he relates the specificity of his life—like the schoolmate who has perpetual ringworm, or the brother who shoots flaming baseballs into the air. These are things that other people might recognize if they were kids growing up at the same time, but they feel like real texture, real parts of life, rather than cultural lip service.

And more than anything, this is just a time and place and feeling we can’t fully recapture, which makes it seem kind of worth it to indulge our memories. We can always watch our Ghostbusters DVD again, we don’t really need another movie. But we can’t be kids watching people fly to the moon for the very first time, and maybe Apollo 10 ½ can give us just a tiny bit of that feeling again.

Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is on Netflix April 1.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.