(director/writer: James Mangold; cinematographer: Michael Barrow; editor: Meg Reticker; music: Thurston Moore; cast: Pruitt Taylor Vince (Victor), Liv Tyler (Callie), Shelley Winters (Dolly), Debbie Harry (Delores), Joe Grifasi (Leo), Evan Dando (Jeff), David Patrick Kelly (Grey Man in Hospital); Runtime: 103; Columbia; 1995)

“Everything about this original film seemed honest and natural.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is an intense, brooding, slow-moving drama taking place at “Pete & Dolly’s” small roadside pizza restaurant, run by the widowed Dolly (Shelley Winters) with help from her shy and obese thirtysomething son Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) as the pizza maker and the irascible waitress for the last fifteen years, Delores (Deborah Harry-former lead singer of Blondie). The self-development human interest drama is seen through Victor’s lonely eyes as he tries to come to grips with his sensitivities, his undeveloped personality, his inability to be articulate, and his low opinion of himself. This indie film is filled with many gratifying small touches. It takes its time developing and forces one to tune into the way Victor, the film’s protagonist, sees things. It is set in a Hudson Valley, New York, small town.

The balding Victor is most at home in the narrow confines of the pizza kitchen, when making pizzas. The film takes its time in bringing out a number of small truths about Victor and the place he resides at so that by the time the story winds down, a big climactic ending is not needed, all the pain and pathos has already been drawn out of it. James Mangold (the son of famous artist parents) deservedly was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Direction at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995 for this film.

The restaurant is barely surviving. It has become a place where only passing truckers frequent and just a handful of regulars stop by until young, beautiful, and lively Callie (Liv Tyler-whose father is Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) gets hired. Dolly takes a liking to this vivacious girl who is dropping out of college, perhaps thinking she could be just right for her bachelor son Victor. Her hiring causes Delores to feel that she has a rival for her job and reacts negatively toward the much younger waitress, while Victor is absorbed by Callie’s good looks and sexuality, and fantasizes about her. He fantasizes that he is saving her from drowning and that she has taken his mother’s place at the breakfast table. He is too bashful to tell her that he likes her, as he is too self-conscious of his appearance. When he tips the scales at 250-pounds, he decides to go on a crash diet. His mother tries, to no avail, to cheer him up by saying, “You’re not fat, you’re husky.”

When Callie wonders why Victor doesn’t go to the neighborhood Culinary Institute’s cooking school where he could learn to become a chef, his domineering mother tells her “Why pay for him to learn something that he already knows!”

Regular customer Leo (Joe Grifasi) is a heavy drinker hiding his depressive state by acting superior to Victor. He is enamored with the middle-aged Delores, but she mostly returns his affections with stinging comments. Delores is an enigmatic figure, someone Dolly expects had an affair with her husband and therefore harbors a resentment toward her but not enough to fire her.

When Dolly is hospitalized, Victor is asked to drive Delores home and is surprised when she makes a pass at him as they stop at the airport to watch the airplanes take off. When he rejects her, she snaps “What, are you saving it for someone special?” Victor when asked later by Callie for a ride home takes her to the same spot, but she offers him only her friendship. Her boyfriend is a handsome but obnoxious garage mechanic and a guitar-strumming jerk (Evan Dando-lead singer of the Lemonheads), who wants to control her and doesn’t want her working in the pizza place. In contrast to Victor’s gentle nature, he’s always high-strung. It is clearly because of his looks that Callie goes out with him, setting herself up for a life of disappointment and loneliness.

The film slowly builds to its surprise ending revolving around his mother’s death. We see Victor sitting alone in his restaurant, having to face an uncertain and lonely future without her. The film works so well because the performers touch our hearts and the writer/director has come through with a very finely tuned debut effort. There is something precious about this film, whether in Shelley Winters’ engaging performance as a giving but possessive mother, or from Pruitt Taylor Vince’s priceless performance of someone who hardly speaks and is longing for someone to love who isn’t his mother. He still hasn’t matured, even though he’s an adult. While Liv Tyler is a breath of fresh air excellently performing as the one who breathes life into the dead feelings of both mother and son, giving them some hope for the future.

The musical score arranged by Thurston Moore helped set the quiet mood needed for the story to gently unfold. Everything about this original film seemed honest and natural. All the characters know what loneliness is, even if they mask it better than the mama’s boy does. It is easy to relate to their very demanding problems eating away at them making them either overeaters, blind to what they have become, or just plain bitter by the way their life turned out.