It would be easy for a documentary about a struggling drive-in movie theater to emphasize the struggle, to dramatize the fight to keep it alive and to glorify the heroes who continue to resist the unfair changing times. But that’s not what drive-ins are all about. It certainly is not what the Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pennsylvania is about.
In “At the Drive-in,” director Alexander Monelli allows the joyous, quirky personalities of the theater’s employees and long-time customers to tell a story that celebrates a love for movies, one so strong that the theater is able to endure almost anything.
The self-proclaimed “alternative drive-in” screens movies only in vintage 35mm film, “the lower the budget, the better,” on the same projectors running since the theater’s opening in 1949. One of the theater’s runners, Virgil, remarks that the beauty of 35mm film is that it is “not pristine, not spotless, it’s messed up in its own special way.” The same could be said about the Mahoning.
In the season prior to that documented in the film, the theater saw many four car nights at best and, overall, the theater lost money. To pay for the license rights and shipping of each film roll, the theater spends $500 dollars on each movie, $1000 for their standard double-features. Because of the late nights, many of the theater’s workers sleep on inflatable mattresses at night after closing. They hand clean any traces of animals or dirt from the offices and kitchen and they run the risk of death by projector if by chance their hair gets caught and “ripped right out of their heads.” Oh, and on top of all of that, everyone works for free.
“It’s a piece of my dream coming true,” Virgil says, without a trace of irony. In one of the film’s frequent fourth-wall-breaking moments, Robert, a fan and life-long eccentric, notes to Monelli that he heard he had wanted to create a documentary on drive-ins in general but, after interacting with the Mahoning and capturing testimonies similar to Virgil’s, he turned his attention solely on it.
It’s clear the place’s magic rubbed off on Monelli during his dedicated quest of capturing extensive footage throughout the Mahoning’s 2016 season. It yields a cast of characters whose pure love of movies makes them quit their jobs, drive six-and-a-half hours or buy Windex in bulk to ensure a clear view of the big screen, each one odd yet both endearing and inspiring.
Punctuated by stunning shots of the rural beauty that surrounds the towering white screen and a timeline of the theater’s events through rotating displays under the red arrow marquis, the film paints a complete portrait of an institution not stuck in the past or challenged by the future, but one that provides a temporary escape from the present. It amplifies the theater’s infectious energy, leaving you itching to watch the film from the front seat of your hand-me-down high school ride and making you wonder if you’ve ever truly experienced a movie without it.
Written by Elena Burnett.