Family Dinner admirably, consistently gets under your skin with a less-is-more approach, even if that also means less substance to chew on afterwards.
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be covering the South by Southwest film festival in 2022, I’d say you were crazy. If you’d told me that I’d be covering SXSW and Tribeca Film Festival, I’d urgently be calling for an intervention to get you mental help. And yet, here I am now, doing my first review for Tribeca! Though my coverage will be solely virtual this time around, there are still plenty of intriguing films available to discover and discuss. And I’d certainly say my festival viewings kicked off on an… interesting note, if not a thought-provoking one, with the thriller Family Dinner.
This directorial effort by Peter Hengl shows his talent at crafting deeply uncomfortable, subtly upsetting scenes and characters, though I found myself missing a sense of purpose or thematic cohesion to tie them all together. 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) is visiting her Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), a popular nutritionist and author, for the week leading to Easter. Simi, who is overweight, hopes that a few days with her aunt will help change her diet and get her to lose weight. But Claudia’s health regiment is bizarrely cold and demanding to the point of borderline abuse, and while Simi seems to get along fine with Claudia’s husband Stefan (Michael Pink), she’s met with open hostility from her cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek). Something just doesn’t sit right with Simi all around, and the more time she spends at the house, the more she learns of the increasingly severe dysfunction within this family that could potentially lead to something much, much worse.
What makes Family Dinner unique to me is how it evokes such a high level of dread and unpleasantness using almost no explicitly disturbing content for almost the entire running time. Very, very scarcely do we ever see something that’s blatantly scary, nor do we get almost any unmistakable sign that anything is gravely wrong. Even with about fifteen minutes left to go in the film, I was still not sure if there was anything for Simi to worry about at all… but I was still very concerned for her, which is a huge testament to how perfectly Hengl establishes and maintains his film’s mood. From the very start, you do not get the sense that Simi is totally welcome in this house. Fillipp is blatantly obvious in his disdain for her, but even the seemingly nurturing Aunt very subtly projects a sense of distance and a lack of true compassion towards her. Then when the subject of Simi’s weight comes up and she begins Claudia’s strict, quietly condescending diet, complete with the cold atmosphere that permeates through every single frame, it was enough to constantly plaster a grimace on my face as I watched.
There’s also an inexplicable sense of entrapment to this house. Simi can leave at any time and go back home, with nothing even heavily implying otherwise. Yet it somehow still feels like she’s being held there against her will and will face dire consequences if she tries to leave. Eventually there is a sign that such consequences may be true, but even then, it’s hard to really tell if the worst-case scenario in our heads is the truth. Family Dinner thrives best through these unspoken sources of uneasiness, where the dread comes from everything that’s just barely suggested and then lingers with you. Questions about the family’s individual motivations rise at an exponential rate, and while conventional horror knowledge would tell me to believe certain people over others, every possible truth leaves such a bitter taste in one’s mouth that it’s even harder to tell who to trust.
You don’t feel like Simi is safe with anyone, simply because there’s too little evidence to lean you to believe any specific person, yet there’s enough of such evidence to have your mind debate the merits and risks of all decisions Simi could make. It’s rare for a film to do this for as long as Family Dinner does, and this is by far its greatest asset. Visually, the best shot that visually represents such a phenomenon is when Simi is doing something that Claudia wouldn’t approve of, and the camera pans over to a door on the right of the frame, which you’re worried Claudia may appear in… but the focus is actually supposed to be the dresser that Simi goes to open up. Absolutely nothing bad happens here, but I was so tense just from how those couple of seconds were framed!
Family Dinner’s greatest liability, however, comes when you do get the answers… mainly because they leave you with very little to intellectually chew on. The film’s biggest reveal near the very end is definitely a gut-punch, something that’s sure to make everyone watching feel a knot in their stomach. And the final portion afterwards escalates things drastically while still keeping the film’s quiet tension intact. But the motivations behind certain characters’ actions remain very murky at best, and what you can glean out of them comes across as surface-level. There are what I perceive to be very clear digs at how barbaric certain bits of Easter lore are on paper by applying them in a more intimate setting with more modern-day subject matter like weight loss and domestic abuse, and I love these ideas as payoffs… but they’re in need of better setup. For how well Family Dinner uses its less-is-more tactics, they backfire in some ways by making the story’s big picture too simplified and giving the impression that the film is uncertain about what it wants to say. We know too little to take in any of the commentary that the film seems to want us to.
I’m also surprised by how underwhelming Nina Katlein’s performance is, as she’s very under-reactive and barely shows any emotion in so many scenes. At first, her reserved demeanor makes sense due to the awkwardness of the initial greetings. But even as things get more intense, she still keeps that same stoic expression. Now, I think that this was partially intentional, as there’s a scene where she, completely deadpan, stares at Claudia and Stefan making love, which says to me that she’s meant to be off in some way… but this never becomes a factor in the story. There’s nothing about this character that demands her to be this reserved emotionally. I can also tell this is a good actress given the few times she does show more intense emotion, and the other performances are really good, especially from Pia Hierzegger, who sells the supposedly compassionate yet highly questionable nature of her character flawlessly. So, this director clearly knows how to lead his actors. Yet for whatever reason, Simi is distractingly unengaging to watch.
Family Dinner is a film that I really want to be able to think more about than I can actually bring myself to, at least when it comes to the larger ideas and payoff. The devil’s in the details on this one, as this thriller’s biggest strengths come from its small, subtle ways of getting under your skin and building increasing sympathy for the main character. It definitely left me with an uneasy feeling that I needed to decompress from, so it absolutely did many things right. I only wish that Family Dinner had something more on its mind for all of that skillful craft.
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