There are films which raise topical issues in creative, brutal, and nuanced ways and then there are films like Styx.
A German doctor (Susanne Wolff) makes her way along the western coast of Africa. Her destination? Darwin’s tropical paradise, Ascension Island. She begins the journey in Gibraltar and after a few days and a terrible storm, she awakens to find her boat is some 150 yards from an overfilled refugee ship in distress. Her small sailboat is too small to take all of the passengers and the coast guard has told her to leave, they will handle things from here on out. However, she does not trust that the coast guard will arrive in time and so she remains with a moral dilemma: is she duty bound to help them at the risk of her own life, or should she do as told and leave them potentially to die. When she ends up rescuing a 14-year-old boy name Kingsley (Gedion Wekesa Oduor), the decision to stay away only becomes more difficult.
The latest in a long line of films beating audiences over the head with moral rectitude of helping refugees, Styx has so little character and story development that it just comes off flat. Add to that the use of an African child as a mere prop used to evoke uncomfortable feelings in the audience and the whole thing begins to feel exploitative (a theme of the festival this year?). Kingsley has no agency, no backstory, he is merely an object the director can focus on with close-ups of his miserable crying face or fragile body. The use of his character in the story is so blatantly manipulative, that it sours the whole film.
Instead of humanizing the refugee crisis, or adeptly criticizing some of the inhumane policies taken by countries dealing with refugee ships in distress in the Mediterranean, Styx takes the lazy way out by pushing an over-simplistic narrative of bad governments vs. helpless, faceless refugees. Even then, there is so little development in any way that those points are not well defined or implemented. Mostly it is just a vehicle for making audiences feel guilty about the crisis without offering any new or interesting perspectives. Styx is a disappointment and a wasted opportunity of highlighting the very real problems of the refugee crisis facing Europe and the world today.