By Matthew Sorrento.
Just what the pinball tribe needs, and offers a whole lot for feel-good indie fans, too.”
This new release, aptly titled Pinball, celebrates the game, its ignored legacy, along with an important page in its history. Those (mostly older) who sing the famous hit from Tommy do it mainly out of nostalgia and love of the film’s music. Meanwhile, fans of pinball, so used to poor depictions of it in pop culture, have waited years for this kind of movie. Filmmakers Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg offer a heartfelt indie that, for many, should remain in memory long after viewing.
Roger Sharpe (Mike Faist), just about to break into magazine journalism in the 1970s, is down on his luck when he rediscovers the game. Walking down an NYC street, he hears those trademark sounds coming from what, he soon discovers, to be a second-floor peep show. He falls back in love with what he first encountered at college, when he learned that nearly religious rule: don’t let the ball drain, or drop between the flippers. Playing helps to regulate the insecurities of this me-generationer who, thanks to a fine portrayal of the real-life Sharpe by Mike Faist (West Side Story, 2021), connects to the sensitive outsider in all of us. (A mature portrayal of Sharpe, narrating the events as flashbacks, grows tiresome, as the device was in Chaplin in ’92; thankfully, these scenes remain brief and easy to ignore.) For good measure, and probably to support the main plot, the film introduces a romantic interest for the 20-something, divorced Sharpe, something of an outsider herself, as a single mother (as Ellen, Crystal Reed exudes charm and nearly steals several scenes), which helps draw the two together. As soon as Sharpe, from the Midwest, realizes that New York City has long banned his passion – as a purported game of chance supporting gambling, for over 30 years – he finds his escape destroyed on the sidewalk, in a kind of perp-walk display that city officials started exploiting. From here, Sharpe commits to proving that they have the game all wrong, and that it is, in fact, one of skill – long since evolved from the simple shoot-for-a-payout ones created in the early century – and one that serves an important role. While a charming character piece – Faist adds much with spot-on timing – the film presents essential Americana that is largely forgotten.
I personally keep my love of the game alive, thanks to the South Jersey retro arcade local to me, my good friends at RAM Arcade, and two nicely rehabbed older machines at Time Lapse Vintage in Collingswood; and, I’d be remiss not to mention the comprehensive pinball museum near my hometown, Silverball, in Asbury Park, NJ. This film is just what the pinball tribe needs, and offers a whole lot for feel-good indie fans, too.
Matthew Sorrento is Editor-in-chief of Film International and teaches film studies at Rutgers-Camden and Temple University. The editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon, his latest book is David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (co-edited with David Ryan, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021). He has chapters forthcoming in Liminal Noir in Classical World Cinema, edited by Elyce Rae Helford and Christopher Weedman, and ReFocus: The Films of Wes Craven, edited by Calum Waddell (both from Edinburgh UP.)