Family Dinner, the feature debut of writer/director Peter Hengl, combines the awkwardness and cringe of dinnertime family interactions with holiday terror. It’s a rare occurrence in the genre to have Easter as a holiday. In the days leading up to Easter Sunday, the meticulous slow-burn story of Family Dinner unfolds, focusing on volatile relationships and strict, strange holiday traditions to generate deep psychological dread. Family Dinner
Simi (Nina Katlein), a 15-year-old girl, arrives at her aunt Claudia’s (Pia Hierzegger) residence just in time for Easter. When she arrives, Simi thinks that her aunt, Claudia, a renowned nutritionist, and best-selling health book author, will be able to help her shed the pounds. Claudius agrees, immediately placing Simi under severe restraints, including calorie limits. Then Simi has to deal with her cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek), while Filipp’s stepfather Stefan (Michael Pink) is particularly affectionate toward her. The family’s anxiety level rises as Easter Sunday approaches. In the end, the truth about Simi’s behavior is more horrifying than she could have ever hoped for.
Simi doesn’t have a strong relationship with either her aunt or cousin
Hengl throws his gullible young protagonist into a maze of perilous circumstances. We learn right away that Simi doesn’t have a strong relationship with either her aunt or cousin and that she only pays a visit when she has personal reasons to do so. The fact that she has no idea who or what she’s around immediately causing her distress. It’s impossible for Simi to avoid provoking either Filipp or Claudia’s wrath, which keeps her — and the audience — constantly on their toes. Initially, Claudia is much more friendly and hospitable than her son Filipp, but bogus proof of concealed food draws Claudia’s anger upon Simi and charges that she isn’t taking her nutritional advice to heart. One of Stefan and Filipp’s tumultuous relations serves as yet another red indicator that something is amiss.
One unsettling meeting after another in an increasingly claustrophobic environment pushes Simi to a breaking point of psychological agony. Instilling fear requires food, or the absence thereof. Claudia’s entire profession is based on her love of food and the associated rituals. Rather than relying just on language, Hengl relies on the visual representation of food in order to convey more information to the viewer.
Claudia and Stefan remain out of reach throughout the story
Claudia and Stefan remain out of reach throughout the story because the narrative is framed from Simi’s perspective. Hengl keeps the adult characters as strangers in order to maintain the cryptic dread of the story. Simi’s closest and most frequent interactions are with her cousin or phone conversations with her mother. Keeping a distance between Claudia and Stefan adds tension, but it also lessens the impact of the revelations.
Easter elevates the simmering pot to a full-fledged roiling. As a result of psychological stress, dread breaks into violence. Hengl’s foreshadowing talents allow the audience to understand where things are going, but the horrific details keep you guessing. Even if the third act has a more spectacular
Family Dinner shines the most bright
As a result of the suffocating atmosphere, Family Dinner shines the most brightly When it comes to conjuring a nightmare family reunion, director Hengl has a strong command of both visual and exploiting character weaknesses. Family Dinner encourages you to cherish the little things, much like the diet-obsessed and particular Claudia would have you do. It needs a lot of patience, and the payoff may not be as spectacular as you had hoped. Even so, you’re left with quite a bit to mull over.
With no release date given, Family Dinner premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.