Driven by his passion for the game and his desire to achieve “wizard mode”, the rare and difficult level that only the truly skilled can access, Robert Gagno has spent a large portion of his life mastering pinball. The number one ranked player in Canada, he can be found most weekends at various tournaments working towards his dream of being the top player in the world. Considering his love for pinball, it is easy to assume that Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry’s charming film Wizard Mode would be a traditional underdog style sports film. It’s not. Instead the film is more concerned with a bigger challenge in Gagno’s life, his navigation of adulthood.
Diagnosed with autism at age three, Gagno and his family have had to endure all of the ups and down that come with it. Feeling like an outsider for most of his youth, the twenty-six-year-old found solace and confidence, within the world of pinball. Discovering the game at age five, Gagno was immediately taken by, and excelled at, the challenge each new game posed. One of the interesting things about Gagno’s story is that he uncovered the sense of community that he longed for through such a solitary game. It is fascinating watching him interact with other competitors at the tournaments. Gagno carries a certain swagger when he is “in the zone,” one that quickly becomes overshadowed by his insecurities the minute the flipper or side rails do not work in his favor.
While Drillot and Petry do their best to create a sense of tension in the pinball competitions, there is, aside from a few great stylist flourishes, only so many ways they can squeeze drama out of reaction shots and the occasional overhead view of the machine itself. Since the film never offers any explanation about how the points system works in a tournament setting, or any deep insight into the other competitors, the actual pinball playing is the least compelling element of the film.
Wizard Mode really soars when Gagno is simply left to share his hopes, dreams, and fears about the world outside of pinball. It is here where the struggles that come with living with autism really hit home. Self-aware, and uncomfortable with the fact that he has the mind of a fifteen-year-old, Gagno provides an honest portrait of a young man who wants to live an independent life, fall in love, and hopefully provide for a family one day, just like everyone else. Similar to the way he approaches each pinball game, he does not let the challenges his disability stand in his way of achieving his goals.
Catapulting the audience into Gagno’s soul like a pinball gliding through the shooter lane, Drillot and Petry craft an engaging film. One that reminds the viewer that, regardless of the obstacles that life puts in front of us, our dreams are attainable as long as we are committed to achieving them.
Monday, May 2, 7:15 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Wednesday, May 4, 1:00 PM, Hart House Theatre
Saturday, May 7, 6:15 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.