SIFF 2022 Review: “The Pez Outlaw” Delightfully Dispenses With Nonfiction Tradition to Get at Another Truth

“It was very film noir,” Mike Mitros says of his friend Steve Glew’s first encounter with pez dispensers in “The Pez Outlaw,” spotting the plastic candy collectibles from a nearby table at a Midwestern swap meet, hardly the kind of locale you’d find in a pulp paperback. However, it was where Glew was tipped off with a whisper of how to get his hands on the good stuff – internationally produced Pez dispensers that weren’t approved for sale in America and would be coveted by those who had to have them all and were willing to pay in the early 1990s before the internet made such things less of a mystery. Co-directors Amy Bandlien Storkel and Bryan Storkel naturally change the image to black-and-white of their doc that’s colorful in every other way once Mitros sets the scene, and rather than hire an actor to play Glew in a reenactment, they enlist the real deal to play himself 25 years earlier, sporting a beard every bit as long as he has in the present day, but without the grey in it.

This might seem merely like a cheeky gimmick if it weren’t for the fact that Glew, given a prominent “Introducing…” credit at the start of the film, actually imagines himself in the kinds of terms that the Storkels can actually place him in. Nonfiction filmmakers rarely lavish this much attention to production design, but for the machinist who used to pass the time at his humdrum job reading Tom Clancy novels before finding a less strenuous avenue of income, the ability to put Glew inside one as only a movie production can actually opens up his reality in a genuinely illuminating way. While the Storkels and many of their subjects are aware of the irony involved from the start, with avid Pez collector Johann Patek expressing disbelief in the opening scene that anyone would want to make a movie about this, there is a genuinely suspenseful tale to unravel in Glew’s rise as a Pez baron, parlaying an interest in breakfast cereal boxtops to cash in to prizes he could sell into an ability to outsmart corporations trying to control what happens to their product on the secondary market.

Trips abroad to Pez International headquarters in Austria and a loophole in American trademark law made Glew’s importation of dispensers back to Michigan to sell at a markup all but impossible for the American side of the company to counter legally, but after earning the ire of Scott McWhinnie, the U.S. “Pezident” who was said to be upset that one of his designs had made it into collectors’ hands via Glew before he could mass produce them stateside, a feud erupted that becomes so ridiculous it couldn’t possibly be made up. Caught in the middle were Pez employees and the Pez collecting community, a fascinating group of people in their own right that the Storkels are wise to spend plenty of time with to expand the story beyond Glew, and along with co-editor Evan Vetter, they take great care to introduce many of their subjects at exactly the right moment, creating an outsized international web of intrigue for what might be a slender story otherwise and evolving from a peculiar caper comedy into an insightful look at impulsive behavior across the spectrum of intriguing characters drawn to the ornate pieces of plastic. Taking after its highly coveted central object of desire, “The Pez Outlaw” may have an irresistible container, but it turns out what’s inside is just as worthwhile.

“The Pez Outlaw” will screen again at the Seattle Film Festival on April 16th at 1 pm at AMC Pacific Place and is available to stream virtually for the duration of the festival, until April 24th.

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