Movie Review ~ Back to the Drive-In

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the pandemic hit, everyone went back to the drive-in, but behind the scenes, it’s been a struggle for the resilient owners determined to keep their unique drive-ins alive.
Stars: D. Edward Vogel, Dwight Grimm, Leigh Van Swall
Director: April Wright
Rated: NR
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I honestly remember my first drive-in experience like it was yesterday. It was 1988, and my parents packed us up in our Chevy Suburban Scottsdale with the bench seats. Blankets were laid down in the gigantic carpeted back area, snacks were smuggled in, and lawn chairs were set up in front of the rear doors that swung open. The stage was set for the evening movie:  Crocodile Dundee II. Okay, so not the most amazing of selections, but over the ensuing years, I had my fair share of fun experiences at our local drive-ins.

Being from the Midwest, our “interesting” weather patterns didn’t allow for the four-season enjoyment of the drive-in experience, so it was a May-September (October if we were lucky) love-it-while-you-can situation. As our populous cities grew into prosperous suburbs, the vast undeveloped farmlands perfect for the drive-ins suddenly became crowded with new buildings and housing. Land prices became premium, and the advent of cable, VHS/DVD rentals, and streaming made it easier for long-time drive-ins to close up shop. Our last drive-in near our metro area didn’t open this past summer, going out with a whimper. RIP Vali-Hi.

In the new documentary, Back to the Drive-In, director April Wright takes viewers on a tour of eleven drive-ins nationwide. While it isn’t entirely a comprehensive look back at the history of the drive-in theater, it’s a showcase for the hard work and passion the business requires. Throughout the film, Wright lets the owners and employees speak to the importance of the experience of seeing a movie under the stars and provides a glimpse back at the past while keeping an eye on an uncertain future. 

As the world was kept in lockdown in the middle part of 2020, one of the first venues that opened to the public was the drive-in. Here, customers could get out of the house but keep a comfortable enough space from others. The opportunity was there to watch a movie on a giant screen and be outdoors visiting (albeit socially distant) with friends and neighbors who had also been craving a break from the sameness of the indoor pandemic restrictions. This led to a drive-in surge in late 2020 and into 2021, with several businesses previously seeing dwindling numbers finding themselves with booming sales night after night. On a Missouri road trip in August 2020, we opted to trek 30 minutes away from our hotel to a drive-in to see 1984’s Ghostbusters instead of spending another night watching TV. Later that same month, I drove an hour outside of town to see The New Mutants. Let that sink in. The New Mutants.

Wright visits the drive-ins featured in her documentary around the time theaters were starting to open back up slowly, and more films were being released “day and date” (the same day on streaming services as they were in theaters) and talks to the workers about the impact that has had on their momentary thriving sales. We repeatedly hear that the public utilized an undervalued resource when there were no other options but just as quickly abandoned a unique entertainment experience when more accessible alternatives were available. It’s a sad story for viewers, and the disappointment in the owners’ voices is palpable.  (The one semi-amusing recurring bit is how many of the drive-ins were playing the same double feature of Space Jam: A New Legacy and Boss Baby 2)

Yet, overall, Wright has done clever work in Back to the Drive-In by featuring drive-ins operating for decades with newer businesses that have opened (or re-opened) within the last few years. This shows that some entrepreneurs have a vision for what could come next and hope there will be a return to this shared tradition of watching a film outdoors. My only regret is that I didn’t live closer to some of these drive-ins because I’d be first in line to snag a ticket. Perhaps another summer road trip is in order?