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Viewer Guide: “Mystic Pizza” and “Styx”

October 6, 2021 | Richard Peña


Mystic Pizza (1988).

This week’s classic is the 1988 romantic comedy-drama Mystic Pizza, marking the feature film directorial debut of Donald Petrie. 

With its female coming of age tale set in the fishing village of Mystic, Connecticut, Mystic Pizza shifted the film careers of its three then relatively unknown leading ladies into high gear: Lili Taylor, Annabeth Gish and particularly Julia Roberts in a breakout performance. Gish and Roberts play two Portuguese-American sisters, Kat and Daisy Araújo, and Taylor plays Jojo Barbosa, their best friend; the sisters work in a pizza parlor renowned for its especially delicious secret sauce. Hailing from blue collar origins, the sisters are each on the brink of life-changing romantic events: Jo-Jo is undecided about marrying a local fisherman played by Vincent D’Onofrio; Yale-bound Kat’s summer babysitting job leads to a dangerously cozy arrangement with a temporarily single father, played by William R. Moses; and fun-loving Daisy’s “bad girl” appeal catches the eye of a privileged preppy played by Adam Storke. As the summer goes on, hard lessons are learned, decisions are made, but at least one secret is kept—what’s in the special sauce, despite the questioning of an influential food critic. 

Also featured in supporting roles are Conchata Ferrell as the owner of the pizza parlor and Joanna Merlin as the Araújo sisters’ mother, as well as a cameo appearance by a very young Matt Damon in his movie debut as the younger brother of Daisy’s upper crust boyfriend. 

Mystic Pizza’s screenwriter Amy Holden Jones had vacationed in the Mystic, Connecticut area, and was inspired to write her script by the town’s actual Mystic Pizza parlor. Although the owners licensed the use of the restaurant’s name, most of the movie was filmed in less touristy nearby towns. Julia Roberts originally auditioned for the role of Jo-Jo, with Gloria Estefan reportedly approached to play Daisy. Roberts’ success in Mystic Pizza was rapidly followed by an Oscar-nominated performance in Steel Magnolias in 1989, and then the blockbuster hit Pretty Woman in 1990. And Mystic Pizza marked the first of three collaborations for Lili Taylor and Vincent D’Onofrio, who would go to work together again in Household Saints and Brooklyn’s Finest. 


Styx (2018).

This week’s indie is the 2018 drama Styx, a German-Austrian co-production directed by Wolfgang Fischer. 

Deriving its title from the river of death in Greek mythology, Styx opens in the British territory of Gibraltar at the southern tip of Spain, where the untamed natural world exists just beyond the edge of human settlement. German actress Susanne Wolff stars as Rike, an Emergency Medical Technician whose self-possessed cool in life and death situations extends to her choice of vacation pursuits as well. Packing up her sailing yacht, the Asa Gray, Rike sets off on a solo expedition to Ascension Island, some 3,000 miles away deep in the southern Atlantic. Unfazed by what might seem like a terrifying challenge to most people, Rike relishes her solitude and the limitless vistas around her. But when an ocean storm ends the voyage’s tranquility, conditions take a dangerous turn that puts Rike’s sailing prowess to the maximum test. Awakening to a seemingly restored calm, Rike discovers a new threat in the form of a fishing trawler in the near distance. What’s more, the vessel is teaming with desperate people waving for help, and it quickly becomes clear that the damaged vessel is loaded with immigrants being smuggled into the European Union. Although completely unequipped to take on a large-scale rescue mission, Rike pulls aboard one valiant adolescent boy, played by Gedion Odour Wekesa, but soon finds herself thrust into a humanitarian crisis that challenges the moral fiber of her medical training. 

In his remarks following a screening of Styx at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, director Wolfgang Fischer discussed his intentions for the film to dramatize the international immigrant crisis on a personal scale, posing a moral question for first world audiences to consider what they might do under similar circumstances. Although German actress Susanne Wolff did have a license for sailing boats, she had to submit to rigorous training to master the skills needed to convincingly captain the Asa Gray on screen. Except for parts of the storm scene, all of the ocean sequences were filmed on open water without special effects. For the crucial role of Kingsley, Wolfgang Fischer discovered Gedion Odour Wekesa through the German organization One Fine Day, which provides arts programs for the underprivileged school children of Nairobi, Kenya. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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