Sunday, January 15, 2017

Now on Netflix: Wizard Mode (2016)

Wizard Mode (2016) - Directed by Nathan Drillot, Jeff Petry

By Kenny Howell

This is a delightful documentary about a young pinball wizard who has autism.

Robert Gagno is a young man from Vancouver, Canada that has worked his way up to be one of the top pinball players in the world. It is sort of surprising because when Gagno was young, doctors thought he may never learn to talk, and would need lots of care just for basic needs. But through speech therapy, and hard work on his own, Gagno has become a star of the pinball world, and a very intriguing subject for the documentary from Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry.

The reason Wizard Mode works is because of how it stays focused on Gagno as a person, and his struggles to get acclimated into society. He is 26-years-old, and is ready to strike out on his own, but has trouble with social cues, like knowing when to hug people, and just general social interaction. He wants to be in a relationship, and be able to do the things that other people do on a regular basis, but it is a challenge for him, especially when he puts a lot of stress on himself. That is tough because his competitions can really tax him, which makes him lose focus.

Wizard Mode starts with a look at Gagno at work on the pinball machines, battling through competitions and always ending up one of the top players. But Drillot and Petry slowly pivot the film inward to Gagno, as they show his early life, the therapy that got him to where he is today, and talk to him about his hopes and dreams. He is an infectious young man, and the portrayal of him is an honest look at what a young person at his age with autism goes through. It is delightful and heartbreaking at times because you want him to succeed so badly. I am little surprised that Wizard Mode hasn't gotten more notice among the crop of documentaries out this year.

Drillot and Petry do have quite the flair, and they do punch up what could be a pretty straight forward look at Gagno. What it ends up being is one of the better documentaries of the year.

Wizard Mode is now streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***1/2

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