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‘Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood’ review: OK, boomer

Milo Coy as Stan in “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.”

By A.O. Scott

There are some people out there who insist that the moon landing never happened. As far as I know, director Richard Linklater is not among them, but his new movie whimsically proposes its own revisionist account of what NASA was up to in the summer of 1969. Before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap, it seems, a Texas fourth grader named Stan stepped out of the landing module and onto the lunar surface.

Stan’s story is narrated by his grown-up self (voiced by Jack Black). It isn’t really a full-blown conspiracy theory, but more what Tom Sawyer might have called a stretcher — the kind of yarn it might be fun to pretend to believe. The full title of the film, which debuted on Netflix earlier this month, is “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood,” and Stan’s astronaut fabulations are bright threads in a cozy fabric of baby-boomer nostalgia.

Plenty of kids dreamed of going to the moon back then. Stan’s imaginary adventures are filtered through animation techniques that are both dreamlike and precise, so that they blend seamlessly into his meticulously rendered suburban reality. (The head of animation is Tommy Pallotta, whose previous collaborations with Linklater include “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.”) And that’s what the movie is really about: remembering what it was like to be a young American in the ’60s. Black’s voice-over has a wry, can-you-believe-it quality, as if Stan were a dad (or even, at this point, a grandpa) regaling the youngsters with stories about the old days. Or maybe boring them stiff, if they’ve heard this stuff before.

But cut the old guy a little slack. “Apollo 10 1/2” might not be working with the freshest material — “The Wonder Years” popped wheelies and played kickball on similar generational turf — but it’s a lively and charming stroll down memory lane all the same. The movie’s strongest appeal might well be to viewers of Stan’s generation, who are likely to appreciate its meticulous sense of detail and its tolerant, easygoing spirit.

Stan is the youngest of six children, a “Brady Bunch” configuration of three boys and three girls who live with their parents on the outskirts of Houston. Dad works for NASA — in shipping and receiving — and is a mildly grouchy, slightly eccentric, mostly benevolent patriarch. Mom is harried, sarcastic and efficient, running the household like a bustling small business.

Things sure were different back then. There was a lot more cigarette smoking, and a general disregard for the safety of children, who were piled into the backs of pickup trucks, paddled frequently at school, and free to ride bikes without helmets through clouds of DDT. There were fights about who controlled the television and the hi-fi, and plenty of good stuff to watch and listen to even without cable or Spotify: “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the Monkees, to name just two.

Of course there was also the Vietnam War, racial conflict and political assassinations. “Apollo 10 1/2” pays some attention to all that, but also notes that, to a 9-year-old boy in the Houston suburbs, the wider world could seem very far away. Unlike the moon, which was suddenly, miraculously in reach.

Linklater captures the drama and suspense surrounding the Apollo 11 mission, and also the way it was folded into the patterns of daily life. This isn’t the first time he has used animation layered over live performances, and this digital rotoscoping technique is especially attuned to nuances of gesture and facial expression. The way Stan’s father leans forward while he’s watching the news, the side-eye glances that pass between Stan and his siblings, the weary stoicism of their mother’s posture — it’s all beautifully subtle, and more cinematic than cartoonish.

And “Apollo 10 1/2” is more a modest memoir than a whiz-bang space epic. Its view of the past is doggedly rose-colored, with social and emotional rough edges smoothed away by the passage of time and the filmmaker’s genial temperament. The moon landing itself is epochal, transformative, and also just another thing that happened in one boy’s eventful, ordinary life: a small step after all.

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