There’s nothing quite like the breathless yearning of 80s coming-of-age films – and there’s no 80s coming-of-age film quite like Mystic Pizza, Donald Petrie’s directorial debut. Set in the real town of Mystic, Connecticut, the screenplay – penned by Amy Jones, Perry Howze, Randy Howze and Alfred Uhry – revolves around three young Portuguese-American women as they dream of what their lives might become. First, we have Kat Araujo, played by Annabeth Gish, a scholar who is planning to leave Mystic to study astronomy at Yale. Then, we have Daisy, her sister, played by Julia Roberts in her breakout role, who’s less academic and more flamboyant. Finally, we have Jojo Barbosa, played by Lili Taylor. All three friends work at Mystic Pizza, a local restaurant run by Leona, played by Concata Ferrell, their spiritual mother.
All three women are also associated with a different man, although the film is considerably more than their respective romantic trajectories. We open with Jojo leaving her fiancée, Bill Montijo, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, at the altar. Kat meets an older man, Tim Travers, played by William R. Moses, while she’s babysitting his daughter. Tim’s wife is away in England, and Tim is a Yale graduate, so he and Kat form a rapport that quickly turns romantic. Meanwhile, Daisy develops an attraction to Charles Gordon Windsor Junior, played by Adam Storke, one of the many wealthy New Yorkers who holiday in Mystic in the summer months.
The nub of the film is the friendship between these three women and their shared yearning for bigger things. At one point, Daisy asks “How do I know where I’ll be ten years from now?” and the film is suffused with that mystical sense of futurity that marks the cusp from adolescence to young adulthood. Petrie’s camera also immerses us in the textures of the town and surrounding landscape – always moving restlessly, whether through sequence shots or montage, as if trying, like the three women themselves, to build up enough speed to depart.
As a result, these three women spend most of the film poised between looking inward and looking outward – between the town and the wider world beyond the town. That rhythm starts when Jojo leaves Bill at the altar, and continues as she dances around him for the rest of the film, until they finally end up together, like a modern comedy of remarriage. Daisy’s restless desire to leave fuels her romance with Charles, who must leave at the end of the summer to fulfil his responsibilities in New York. Even Kat’s dead-end relationship with Tim speaks to the future, since he embodies the Yale graduation she eventually wants to achieve.
As the film follows these three women, Petrie expands the emotional palette until their shared yearning takes on a cosmic scale. Since Kat wants to study astronomy at Yale, the heavens are a constant point of reference. She first endears herself to Tim by explaining the difference between a nautical and astronomical telescope, while her day job is working at the local observatory. In one of the most breathless scenes, she points out a comet to her friends as they walk along a jetty that seems suspended in the midst of the universe. Like Gatsby’s jetty, it reflects the film’s longing for the ineffable, the intangible, the elusive future. Even Julia Roberts’ hair looks like a constellation, restless to break free into some new dimension of mobility and momentum (in one scene she razzles, ruffles and rearranges it to hitch a ride).
This mystical sense of the future is especially evident in the house that Tim, Kat’s love interest, is renovating. While most of Kat’s babysitting takes place at Tim’s regular home, he’s also restoring a historic four-storey mansion that was built by a Portuguese sailor who wanted to gaze out at the horizon and dream of his wife, who was lost at sea. Since this house is partially renovated, it’s particularly porous, open to the elements like an Aeolian Harp. It cements the film’s primal reference points of sea and stars, as the women navigate their lives like their Portuguese forbears did before them – cosmically, with one eye always cocked to the heavens. All their travels revolve around Mystic Pizza – both the restaurant and its signature, self-titled pizza, which contains secret spices brought over from Europe by these Portuguese ancestors.
This sense of mysticism occasionally spills over into proto-horror moments, glimpses of the supernatural, as if the three women are all posed on the cusp of some vast transfiguration. Cosmic change is in the air – leaves are turning, cold weather is settling, and Kat points out a constellation that heralds the beginning of Fall. This all culminates with a sequence set over Halloween, but this isn’t the Halloween of horror films – it’s the Halloween of the old world, a residue of the pagan belief that this was the time of year when the threshold between our world and the next world was at its most porous. In Mystic Pizza, that next world is the future, which feels tremulously imminent, on the very cusp of existence, as Halloween rolls around.
Of course, this mystical yearning is also rooted in a working-class dream of social mobility, which in this film means passing for white, rather than Portuguese-American. There’s a pointed contrast between Bill, who’s always lived in Mystic, and Tim and Charles, who are both waspy archetypes from elsewhere – a Yale graduate on the one hand, a New York heir on the other. When Jojo leaves Bill in the opening scene, she sets in train a flight towards whiteness, a flight away from Portuguese-American culture, that the three women can never quite accomplish. In a pivotal moment, Daisy buys a fancy dress, assures Kat “I’m going to return it after I’ve worn it somewhere,” and spends the rest of that film yearning for that elusive “somewhere.”
This longing for social mobility also comes with an anxiety about upper-class women, and whiteness in general. Time and again, these Portuguese-American characters, and the film itself, understand whiteness as English. Tim’s wife is currently in England (and seems English when she returns), while Charles Windsor feels like a pretty clear reference to the English Royal Family. The summer crowd are always there, in the background, in the same way that the Royal Family are always there in England – an ambient presence, a reminder of inequity, on the fringes of perception. In one scene, we see “America’s No. 1 Homes” on a television in the background, embodying this half-awareness of the wealthy summer crowd moving in a totally different world. Some of those “No. 1 Homes” are probably in Mystic itself, but you’d never know it from these three women’s lives, or from the version of the town we see here.
In that sense, Tim is the man who most captures the film’s yearning, since he takes a historical dwelling, a house that became a refuge for one man who lived in the town, and transforms it into a summer vacation spot. A site that once spoke to the specificity of the town now becomes a generic yuppie retreat – and the film’s ambivalence about this transformation, which we never see completed, speaks to how elegantly it places us on the cusp between Mystic and the outside world. For all the centripetal forces pushing us beyond the town, there are also compelling centrifugal factors pulling us back into its unique textures – factors that Tim can’t know, that remain unknowable to those who didn’t grow up Portuguese-American.
The genius of the film, then, is that it evokes a futurity, and a wider world, that depends precisely on being at the cusp of Mystic, rather than properly in or out. Mystic itself is already mystic – you can see all the stars from the local jetty – so the further we get from it, the more we want to return to it. The nexus between Mystic and the world is more satisfying than either, just as the dreams of adolescence – the dreams of futurity – are more romantic than any one specific future. And Mystic Pizza combines these centrifugal and centripetal energies – both the pizza, which swirls the spices of the old country into a fusion that is then distributed back to the town, and the restaurant, where the women twist and spin around customers in a constant ebb and flow, spinning out and spinning back in, as they dodge each new obstacle.
No surprise, then, that Mystic Pizza both draws in the world, and propels us back into the world, more emphatically than any other space in the film. On the one hand, this little Connecticut pizzeria is good enough to attract Hector Freshette, played by Louis Turenne, a nationally syndicated restaurant reviewer, who gives it a top rating on his television program. On the other hand, Leona, the restaurant owner, gives Kat the money that she needs to attend Yale when her own family comes up short. Between those two poles, the film ends, poised, on a tremulous cusp between Mystic and the United States, as the three women find their fulfilment, only to leave the final party together and gaze upwards into the cosmic sky.
There’s a deep melancholy to this final scene – a burnished sense that this moment can never come again, and can only last as long as this final scene itself, which is perhaps why I have always found Mystic Pizza one of the most compulsively rewatchable of 80s coming-of-age films. And that gentle sadness, the mono no aware of a poised moment, undercuts the relatively conventional ways – especially the romantic ways – that even an idiosyncratic Hollywood film of these times was forced to resolve young women’s lives. Jojo gets married again, Daisy gets her man, and Kat is reassured that a woman has an equal shot in academia, but the film’s yearning surpasses these blithe assurances, reaching out its melancholy longings for a feminine futurity that still feels as utopian now as it did some thirty years ago.