Richard Linklater has always had his head in the past. Every era of his life has been mined for cinematic treasures, be it high school (Dazed And Confused), university (Everybody Wants Some!!), early adulthood (Before Sunrise), or pretty much all of the above (Boyhood). This, his 21st feature, zeroes in on only a single summer, but it’s no less vivid for it; if anything, it feels like his most personal film in years.
As with Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly before it, Linklater uses a unique style of animation to take his trip down memory lane: directing his actors in live action, before a team of animators trace over those performances in a technique known as rotoscoping, which gives the character-motion an eerily realistic feel. Where the technique in those previous two films heightened the sense of reality detaching itself, here it’s employed for sweeter reasons: our hero Stanley (voiced byJack Black in narration, and played by Milo Coy in ten-year-old form) is a dreamer, or “fabulist” as he calls himself, and that strange, hyper-real aesthetic neatly chimes with the script’s deliberate fuzziness of reality and fiction.
This is a story with its head in the stars but its heart on the ground. In Stanley’s telling, there was a secret mission, days before the famous Apollo 11 walk on the moon, which saw NASA recruit him, a small child, to test their equipment on the moon first. The reason given: they “accidentally built the lunar module a little too small”. It’s exactly the kind of far-fetched story an over-imaginative kid might brandish during school recess to impress his classmates.
There’s much delight to be had from a character at the vanguard of history, both real and pretend, but Linklater is just as interested in the minor details as the momentous ones.
That imagined mission bookends the film, but the meat of the thing is really Linklater (who also wrote the script) luxuriating in his memories. Growing up in the newly built suburbs of a town whose main employer is NASA — just as Linklater indeed did — Stanley and those around him are obsessed with the Space Age. It’s everywhere. Sonic booms occasionally rumble overhead from the nearby Houston Space Center. The kids visit AstroWorld and set off toy rockets in their gardens. Most people’s parents work in the booming local space economy. “Science class was so exciting,” Black’s voiceover explains, “because it felt like current events.”
There’s much delight to be had from a character at the vanguard of history, both real and pretend, but Linklater is just as interested in the minor details as the momentous ones. A neighbour spends his days smoking a cigar in his open garage, watching the world go by. Grandparents who lived through the Depression reuse paper towels. A school lunch sandwich is still partly frozen after being batch-made by a mother of five and chucked in a freezer on a Sunday. There are tons of these gorgeously observed moments, thoughtfully given time and space to breathe, which make it seem less like an indulgent exercise and more like a memoir.
As with many a loosey-goosey Linklater joint before it, there’s not much of a driving narrative here: it’s more a series of vignettes, plucked from real life. Some might find the nostalgia-fest a little excessive — at one point Stanley literally just lists his favourite TV shows, which feels a bit like an ‘I Love The ’60s’ clip show. But at its best, it works like a powerful, evocative dream. “You know how memory works,” Stanley’s mother (Lee Eddy) says at one point. “Even if he was asleep, he’ll think he saw it all.” Watching this charming film has the effect of thinking you were there, too.