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Pinball Summer

(AKA Pick-Up Summer) 1980, Starring Michael Zelniker, Carl Marotte, Karen Stephen, Helene Udy, Thomas Kovacs, Joey McNamara, Joy Boushel. Directed by George Mihalka.

Until Bob Clarks' Porky's barnstormed teen sex comedies with its daring mix of raunch and socially relevant messages, the genre was a fairly innocuous one. Lightly plotted coming-of-age tales like Crown Internationals Van Nuys Boulevard and Malibu Beach did feature brief nudity and prank-based rivalries, but they were more about capturing a mellow L.A. vibe than making crude snarky jokes or some kind of political statement.

While Porky's ushered in a cottage industry of likeminded comedies north of the border, a few Canadian-made teen films preceded it. Shot in the summer of 1979, George Mihalkas debut feature Pinball Summer is the best of the lot, an effort that takes its cues from the Crown films and offers up a carefree look at life in the 1970s that culminates in an exciting pinball tourney.

Schools out and good times are the top priority for best buddies Greg (Michael Zelnicker) and Steve (Carl Marotte), as they cruise around town in a custom van chasing after local sisters Donna (Karen Stephen) and Suzy (Helene Udy). At Pete's, their arcade hangout, the pair find a similarly worthwhile summer project--an upcoming pinball competition, which will conclude with a Miss Pinball pageant.

After convincing Donna and Suzy to hop in their ride, the teens take viewers on a whirlwind tour of teenage summer pastimes. While the foursome heads off to the amusement park, the beach, pool parties and O.J.'s--the burger joint where the waitress Sally (Joy Boushel) is the real main attraction--they run afoul of Bert (Tom Kovacs), the leader of a grimy biker gang and Greg's arcade nemesis. This kicks off a series of pranks, including the repeated theft of the pinball championship trophy, which culminates in a food-stuffed tailpipe gag that shoots mushed-up burgers and French fries all over the town Alderman at the drive-in. Despite a memorable scene in which Sally challenges the boys to strip pinball, the future begins to darken once the competition approaches, as Donna and Suzy begin to lose romantic interest and Bert convinces dim-witted pinball mechanic Wimpy to fix the game so he can beat Greg for the trophy.

Clearly, a strong plot is not Pinball Summers most pressing concern, as the action bounces from one gag-laden scenario to the next. The pinball competition is even forgotten for close to an hour as the romances between the smitten teen couples roughly develop. The film is much more effective as a pop culture time capsule of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pinball, custom vans, drive-ins, disco clubs, leather-clad bikers and lazy summer pop songs (by Beach Boys tribute act Jay and Germain) are all given prominent screen time, and are often more interesting than the languidly unfolding story.

Although this was the first feature for recent Concordia graduates Mihalka and his cinematographer Rodney Gibbons, the team that would later graduate to the classic Canadian slasher My Bloody Valentine, Pinball Summer is a surprisingly professional-looking film that includes a few inventively shot sequences. The pinball competition, when it finally gets underway, is actually tense and occasionally exciting, and the slapstick chase sequence for the trophy that follows is also well done, showing the pairs willingness to take chances and get creative with their material.

Another nice touch is that Pinball Summers game machines were all given custom paint jobs for the film. The first game, "Arthur" has a face on the backglass that supposedly talks to the players, while the table played by Greg and Bert for the final challenge, "Pinball Summer," features cartoon caricatures of the film's stars.

Renamed Pick-Up Summer by U.S. distributors Film Ventures International, who felt that the pinball fad had fizzled, the film did an impressive business on the U.S. drive-in circuit, where Americans apparently accepted that Quebec's Oka Park was a good enough stand-in for sunny L.A. The critical reception in Canada was predictably less welcoming, where Pinball Summer was attacked as just another dose of tax shelter shlock. It is to some extent, but this refreshingly unpretentious, decently crafted effort is still one of the better films of its usually brainless genre, a film that offers viewers a few high-scoring bonuses without tilting the familiar conventions too much.

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