AT THE DRIVE-IN / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR: ALEXANDER MONELLI / SCREENPLAY: / STARRING: JEFF MATTOX, VIRGIL CARDAMONE, MATT McCLANAHAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (AMAZON PRIME VIDEO)
It seems entirely fitting that this new indie documentary should itself so evidently be a labour of love. Directed, edited, produced and shot by Alexander Monelli, At The Drive-In recounts the story of the efforts of a group of enthusiasts to revive the fortunes of a drive-in movie theater, the type that was massively popular across the United States during the 1940s and 1950s.
In the seventy years since then, Americans’ fixation with the motor car has not faltered. But almost every other cultural and technological development has conspired to relegate the drive-in to the dustbin of history. From on-demand digital downloads to immersive 3D surround sound multiplexes, innovation in the entertainment industry has left the drive-in experience looking anachronistic, lacking in creature comforts and wholly out of step with the rhythms of modern-day leisure consumption.
The Mahoning Drive-In Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania has stood out against the tide of closures that has engulfed thousands of its compatriots across the US over many decades. But when its rental distributor announced that it would in future only supply digital versions of its movie titles, the theatre was thrown into crisis. Unable to raise the $50,000 required to buy a new digital projector, the site was saved from closure by a group of volunteers who set about redefining the Mahoning as a place that could offer a “classic drive-in experience” as a single-screen facility, using its existing old-school projectors to only show movies available as 35mm film prints.
At The Drive-In is a celebration of what ordinary people can achieve when a collective enthusiasm is fashioned into a mutual commitment to keep alive something that matters to everyone involved. Much like the vinyl loyalist who forswears digital music formats, the fans of film projection at the drive-in will insist that the frame jumps and the pops and clicks in the soundtrack (the result of sliced and re-taped film stock) are all part of the authentic cinema experience.
There’s obviously a huge swathe of nostalgia running through the volunteers’ efforts at Mahoning, a harking back to a lost youth for some, and a sense of connecting to what is seen (however inaccurately) as a “simpler, happier time” for others. The cinema’s focus on “back catalogue” films gives it a distinctive selling point, but this means that its appeal is similarly niche. Very astutely, the team has branched out to embrace theme nights, camp-out weekends, and low-cost DIY technical ingenuity (such as screening from VHS tapes) to attract specialist audiences from further afield.
The Mahoning cinema has continued to thrive due to the countless hours of unpaid labour that volunteers have willingly put in, many of them travelling huge distances and sleeping on mattresses in the main block when each night’s double feature ends.
What becomes evident throughout the film is the extent to which the cinema has provided something of a personal sanctuary and a respite from the pressures of the outside world for those working behind the scenes.
Many of the crew would recognise themselves (with appropriate levels of pride) as “geeks” and “nerds”. There’s a clear warmth in Monelli’s appreciation of their life choices, and a non-judgemental celebration of the sometimes eccentric personality quirks of these highly-focused film enthusiasts. Together with the business owner (and, since 1978, lead projectionist) Bob, dedicated fans have kept the drive-in going against the odds. But it’s just as clear how rewarding, individually and collectively, these volunteers have found the experience. “I would call these people family,” one of the group says of his co-workers, with complete sincerity.
Monelli’s unfussy and unobtrusive style draws the viewer inside this remarkable story of the Mahoning and its loyal supporters. You’ll find yourself urging this underdog on at every step, and sharing the team’s elation when the crowds turn out for a special screening. This is a brilliant, life-affirming documentary that is just as much about the themes of community, belonging, and the joy that can come from the shared experience of being a fan (especially of something that other people may not appreciate or understand) as it is about the magic of celluloid and the in-car movie experience.