February 14, 2024

BACK TO THE DRIVE-IN Paints a Gloomy Picture

2022 / 105 min
Review by Stinky the Destroyer😽

Being of a certain age, I have fond memories of drive-ins. From piling into the backseat in my jammies as a kid to piling into the backseat with dates, it was always a lot of fun. More often than not, whatever movie was actually playing was secondary to the experience. 

Though hardly the optimum way to view a film, I miss drive-ins. They aren’t quite extinct yet, but there are only two left in my home state and the closest is a 90-minute drive away. Like Fotomat booths, it’s just a matter of time before they’ve all gone the way of the dodo. Because of its subject, I thought I’d enjoy Back to the Drive-In a lot more than I actually did. But it's not-so-much an affectionate reflection of the past as a gloomy forecast of the future.

This documentary visits 11 currently-operating drive-ins across the country, from big multi-screen spreads to humble family-run businesses and everything in between (such as an enterprising man who turned his own backyard into one). Some of them have been open for decades, while others are - surprisingly - fairly new. We meet the owners and managers who discuss the joys and tribulations (mostly the latter) of operating such a business in this day and age.

If this is what's playing, I'm not going to the drive-in either.
The locations may be different, but their stories are more or less the same…the COVID pandemic triggered a brief resurgence in the popularity of drive-ins, but since then, business and interest continues to dwindle. These owners seem determined to remain open, but also appear painfully aware that the days of drive-ins as a sustainable business are probably numbered. Filmmaker April Wright must think so, too, since the entire film is accompanied by the kind of melancholy score one usually hears in a poignant death scene (even during moments of levity).

Hence, the film ends up being kind of somber. Seeing how these theaters operate is certainly interesting, as are the personal stories of owners explaining how and why they got into the business in the first place. And if nothing else, I’m inspired to finally make that 90 minute trek to my nearest drive-in just to relive the experience one more time. But Back to the Drive-In is hardly the nostalgia trip I was expecting. As someone who fondly recalls enjoying movies under the stars, it’s more like visiting a loved one who’s on life support.

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