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Review: “Pizza” (2005)

Pizza: It has the power to bond a misfit (Kylie Sparks) and an underachiever (Ethan Embry).

Pizza: It has the power to bond a misfit (Kylie Sparks) and an underachiever (Ethan Embry).

What could a pizza delivery guy with a serious case of existential ennui possibly teach a fresh-off-the-stage high school graduate? Absolutely nothing. (What? That wasn’t a trick question.) But it turns out that ex-high schooler, a clever old soul if ever there was one, has a few lessons in store for that pizza guy, the kind of guy who figured that life is all downhill after becoming prom king. 

Such is the odd and strangely moving situation at the heart of “Pizza,” a low-budget (re: very low-budget) indie held together by a pair of intelligent and totally surprising performances from a newcomer (the effervescent Kylie Sparks) and a hard-working but not terribly high-profile actor (Ethan Embry). These two are the heart and soul of “Pizza,” and the reason why the movie works at all. The camerawork, the editing, the light and sound — all terrible. But Sparks and Embry make the trip — which includes one night of pizza deliveries, bar hopping and a high school party, among other things — a worthwhile one.

The plot, well, it’s not exactly revolutionary. It’s the night of her 18th birthday party, and Cara-Ethyl (Sparks) is stuck at home with her shrill mother (Julie Hagerty), surrounded by empty chairs and uneaten party food. No one came to her party, and it’s no wonder — Cara-Ethyl’s not exactly high school material.  She says things like “Pizza: sustenance of youth, rite of teenage social bonding, and it’s very tasty indeed.” Right. Enter Matt (Embry), the 30-year-old discontent underachiever who delivers her pizza. The conditions are optimal for the creation of a weird friendship: Cara-Ethyl looks pathetic, Matt feels sorry for her and both of them have no idea where their lives are headed. So begins the night-long adventure, which, in a nice kind of symmetry, begins at a humiliating party and ends at a different humiliating party.  Most of the teen movie cliches are there — an underage girl drinks beer! somebody’s place gets trashed! — and it all feels a little too familiar, a little too recycled.

What’s different, and admirably so, are the characters, so compelling and complicated that they don’t seem to belong in a movie like this. Matt could have been a sneering jerk, a one-note S.O.B. who still sees himself as that quarterback scoring chicks after the homecoming game. Not so here; director Mark Christopher writes him as alarmingly self-aware. And the way Embry plays him, you get the sense that even though Matt was popular, he favored “The Communist Manifesto” over “Hustler.” There are moments when Embry delicately reveals the cracks in Matt’s “I like my life” armor. Take, for example, his attempt to retreat from the realization his life has stalled: “Sometimes the truth shall set you back.” But he’s not a lost cause, just someone who needs an outside force to propel him into motion. Cara-Ethyl intuits this about him, sees humor and warmth and potential, and it intrigues her. This speaks to her extraordinary intelligence as much as it does to Matt’s character.

And why “Pizza” didn’t propel Sparks into a fine career as an actress saddens me. She gives life to a character that, in so many other teen movies, has been a punching bag: the fat smart girl who wears glasses. Sparks gives Cara-Ethyl a spark, a kind of tentative confidence that is disarming. This girl has no intention of hiding behind the drapes; she knows who she is, she accepts herself and she understands that she wasn’t meant for high school. Neither is Sparks, who has the rare ability to be confident and vulnerable, meant to waste away in underground movies like this.

Grade: B-

2 Responses

  1. Brilliantly written review.

    I tend to find myself annoyed by the cliche high school moments, but I think part of the reasons they continue to replay is the fact that so many moments of being a teenager haven’t changed in that respect. Doesn’t mean I like it, but coming of age hasn’t really evolved so much.

    What I do like is the fact that this sounds so character driven, and that they didn’t fall into the typical cliches, but then maybe that was the point, as you said, that they didn’t belong in high school.

    I’m truly intrigued by this one.

  2. “Pizza” I discovered through the all-knowing Netflix suggestions tab, and I’m glad I did. The synopsis had me worried it was another typical unimaginative high school movie (and a low-budge one, to boot), but the characters surprised me — in a good way. The movie does make me mad, though, because I don’t think Kylie Sparks’ the kind of young actress Hollywood directors are clamoring for. Fools.

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