Hot Docs 2016: Wizard Mode
It’s amazing the variety of ways the human mind can function. For people on the autism spectrum, their experiences can vary wildly. There’s also a lot of misinformation still permeating everyday culture surrounding how autistic people function. Set against the backdrop of competitive pinball playing, Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry’s film Wizard Mode is an educational lesson looking to dispel these myths. The film’s subject, Robert Gagno, is a lovable man who takes us into the realities of his daily life. It’s a highly informative and interesting journey.
From an early age, Robert’s parents knew there was something different about him. He liked to spin around in circles, he was fascinated by mechanical household objects like light switches and fans, and he was late to start trying to talk. From a very young age, he was fascinated by pinball machines. He was formally diagnosed as being autistic and through intensive speech therapy, he began to talk at the age of nine. As he got older, his passion for playing pinball grew, taking to it with a natural ease.
His obsession expanded into collecting pinball machines, not just playing them. He and his father were always on the lookout for rare and exciting games, with their ultimate goal being to find The Simpsons pinball machine. This particular machine contains the most difficult Wizard Mode in pinball game-play. It is the ultimate level to ascend to, once all other levels of the game have been beaten plus with certain conditions being met along the way. Once they found one, and after many hours of practice, he achieved this feat playing for an hour straight.
As a result of his mind tending to focus intently on a singular task, he would play for hours and eventually began competing across Canada and internationally. Gagno quickly became one of the best players in the world, rising from being a complete unknown in just a few short years.
Outside of pinball, Robert’s parents try and teach him independence. This is difficult for Robert, as he has trouble interacting with people in social situations, has never had a job, or travelled alone. His parents work with him to teach him levels of affection with people, how to write a resume and answer interview questions, go to the grocery store, travel on his own to a competition, and get a job to earn his first paycheque. Slowly but surely, Robert improves his skills to the point where he can hopefully be on his own or with limited supervision in the near future.
The pinball playing, while fun and exciting, almost takes a back seat to the real story of Robert teaching us what it’s like to live with autism. We are able to see how his brain functions in processing external stimuli and how it tells him to interact with people. He teaches us that the idea of autistic people not being able to be affectionate, loving, communicative, or semi-independent is false.
The time we spend following Robert in the film is one of great change for him. He is actively taking steps to improve his life by setting goals for himself, practicing the skills that are difficult for him to acquire, and gaining his independence. At the end, we get to experience a joyful breakthrough moment for Gagno as he delivers a speech in front of a large crowd. This is a result of the work he’s put into bettering himself.
It’s through films like these that we start to change our perception of what it means to have autism. They provide a light that shows that even though people with autism may have to approach living life differently than most others, just about everything is possible with practice, patience, and understanding. Wizard Mode is a charming and compassionate film.