Richard Linklater is looking back from outer space at childhood’s blue remembered hills in this intensely enjoyable and sweet family movie for Netflix. It’s a rotoscope animation digitally based on live action; in its way, it is every bit as cultish and hallucinatory as the ones that Linklater has made before, like Waking Life from 2001 and A Scanner Darkly from 2006.
A 10-year-old boy called Stan (voiced by Milo Coy and then by Jack Black as Stan’s adult self, narrating the action) is growing up in a Houston suburb in the late 60s in a big family with a dad employed in a lowly admin job at Nasa. Stan is obsessed (like everyone) with the Apollo 11 moon mission, and has a vivid fantasy or hallucination that he has been picked by Nasa agents to be a test astronaut for a top-secret dummy-run moon landing, codenamed Apollo 10½, for which the authorities accidentally built the lunar test module too small. So they need a kid of the highest calibre to pilot the thing down to the moon’s surface and bring it back home safely to reassure Neil, Buzz and Michael that they’ll be OK.
With shrewd storytelling judgment, Linklater makes this lucid dream of unsung kid heroism only a very small part of what is otherwise an overwhelmingly real, almost novelistically low-key film: a basically plotless account of just what it was like to be a kid in Houston in the late 60s. It’s a nonstop madeleine-fest, a revival of memories curated with passionate connoisseurship, something to compare with Joe Brainard’s 1970 memoir I Remember: the ice-cream flavours, the TV shows, the drive-in movies, the schoolyard games, the parents, the eccentric grandparents, the theme park rides, the neighbours, the prank phone calls – and the fact that Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was on Sunday night TV and so unfairly saturated with next-day school dread. There is also vehement praise for the 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel, for predicting almost everything about the Apollo missions.
Stan’s is a very innocent childhood: he doesn’t have any crushes on anyone, and we don’t hear about anything of the sort for his older siblings. The one allusion to this issue comes when the Nasa agents show him the fake photos from the summer camp they’ve fabricated to explain his absence doing this secret mission – one shows him smiling at a girl. Nothing like that actually happens: the shy love story that another coming-of-age-type movie might have created in parallel with the spaceshot isn’t there. Stan’s actual romance is with the moon. And when the family gathers around the TV to watch the moon landing itself, real life merges ecstatically with Stan’s dream, and the rotoscope animation helps conceal the join.
The film’s subtitle is A Space Age Childhood, an echo of his great, 12-year masterpiece Boyhood. Youth is a great theme of Linklater’s, but presented without any great directional moralising or emotional narrative. Being young just is. This is a film of enormous charm; it’s such a treat..
• Apollo 10½ is in cinemas now and on 1 April on Netflix.