There’s no question that writer-director April Wright loves the drive-in. She showed herself an avid and curious fan when she released her 2013 documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie. In it she tracked the history of the cinematic pastime, and the nostalgia she and many others feel about it, with passion and a researcher’s zeal. Almost 10 years later, she’s circled around to the subject again with Back the the Drive-In, a sequel documentary about how drive-ins thrived (sort of) during the pandemic, and how owners of same have been doing through it. How are drive-ins faring as life is going back to ‘normal’ and customers are flocking back to what one drive-in owner calls “Hardtop theaters”?
Back to the Drive-In is a love letter, a compassionate gift for a largely dying pastime and the intrepid, often bedraggled proprietors who have stuck with it, through all the ups and downs of the last few years. There are still drive-ins all across the country, and Wright goes to a number of them. Some are very successful, some on the verge of collapse, but all absolutely fascinating to see. So are the people that run them. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of complaining, because.. consider being in charge when people who haven’t gotten out for months are finally let loose, and you have to tell them the rules and see they stick to them. Also, the bottom line is impacted by and is at the mercy of the mercurial whims of Mother Nature. That can’t be easy. Juxtaposed against the owners mustering the last of their patience, are the eternal optimists who love their jobs completely, infusing their teen employees with enormous enthusiasm. The owners of one theater make cookies by hand that celebrate whatever is playing on the big screen. White Russians are the special during a screening of The Big Lebowski. They’re so happy to be alive and doing what they love, that it’s, you’ll excuse the expression, ‘infectious’. (Too soon?) Wright interviews these people from off-screen, and they obviously trust her, as her subjects speak comfortably and candidly on-camera.
While the film could use a muscular shave, (at an hour and forty five minutes, it’s about half an hour too long) and the score is way too on-the-nose and overly sentimental, it’s the folks talking about their theaters and the footage of the theaters themselves that drive-in lovers will enjoy. Back to the Drive In shows it definitely takes all kinds. The group of nostalgia-driven subjects on which she focuses, though quite different from each other, really represent the expression “as American as apple pie”. This is one pandemic-focused film that will be a fascinating testament to personal and professional determination and perseverance in years to come.
3 out of 5 stars.