Family Dinner: Film Review | Tribeca 2022
(4/5) A wickedly smart and inspired entry in the modern body horror canon.
FILMHORRORPSYCHOLOGICALWOMAN-CENTEREDFILM FESTIVALTRIBECAMOLLY KUSILKA
In his impressive and assured feature debut, Austrian writer/director Peter Hengl has crafted an increasingly tense and gruesome slice of psychological body horror. We follow 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein), a loveable and charming protagonist, as she goes to stay with her Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), her husband Stefan (Michael Pink), and her son Filip (Alexander Sladek), for the week leading up to Easter Sunday. Simi has not been to their home before nor does she even really know them. The atmosphere of their home is immediately unsettling, evoking that familiar sense of discomfort when staying at someone else’s home, unsure if your presence is a nuisance and feeling wildly out of place. It becomes evident immediately that Claudia, her son, and her husband have an abnormal dynamic, and we follow Simi as she gradually pieces together the truth behind Aunt Claudia’s intentions and the reasoning for the tensions between them.
At the core of this film is its commentary on diet culture - Simi is eager to lose weight and has studied the latest diet book from her aunt, a successful nutritionist and diet book author. Aunt Claudia senses this and offers to make Simi her “pupil” for the week, sternly asserting that this is an honor and privilege that Simi must take seriously, or she will rescind her offer to help. Aunt Claudia tells Simi she must “detox her body” and not eat until their Easter Sunday feast. Throughout the film, Simi is starving herself, and the sound design often highlights her stomach grumbling in agony, making Simi’s starvation an element of horror in itself. Aunt Claudia has clearly grown obsessed with ancient diet cultures and eating rituals, combining what she’s learned into a makeshift cultish diet-based religion she abides by, which we come to understand through several intense dinner scenes complete with mouthwatering shots of the food Claudia has prepared, food that only her son can eat, due to the rest of them “fasting”. The way Claudia has essentially justified her absurd practices by linking them to ancient rituals is a brilliant satire on the way Western civilization, specifically the likes of wellness gurus, has co-opted aspects of other cultures.
Hengl utilizes horror brilliantly to dissect and satirize the most disturbing elements of diet culture and fatphobia. From the start, Aunt Claudia’s son Filip ruthlessly taunts Simi’s weight and calls her names, with a clear, fatphobic hatred for her that is horrifying in itself. Simi’s starvation is also painful and intense to witness, as we watch her push her body and mind to their breaking point in order to please her Aunt. It’s even more painful to witness as Simi is such an endearing and relatable character; watching a 15-year-old girl deal with body image and weight issues really grounds the film in empathy and familiarity - it’s effortless to root for and understand her.
One of the standout aspects of this film is the complexity of the three antagonistic family members Simi is staying with, thanks to stellar performances and lazer-sharp writing that keeps the viewer on their toes. The push and pull each of them has with Simi is constantly shifting, and each one has moments where you can almost understand where they are coming from and start to wonder if they are a victim. The dynamic between the three of them is a well-executed tight-wire act, constantly pushing the viewer and Simi to wonder who to believe and who is truly the source of evil in the home. While the son bullies Simi, it also becomes clear that he is being abused by someone in the family. The Uncle seems to take an uncomfortable liking to Simi and has a chilling hatred for the son. Claudia’s demeanor is constantly shifting from chillingly cold to kind and open. Just as Simi is, we are constantly trying to make out what is truly happening beneath the surface. It makes for a mysterious, edge-of-your-seat brand of horror, rich in unpredictability and suspense.
In typical horror film fashion, Simi makes frustrating decisions, willingly staying at the home when she has several opportunities to leave. But this film does an excellent job of making you understand why Simi continually chooses to stay there and why she falls so easily into Aunt Claudia’s manipulative spell. She’s an impressionable teenage girl, desperate to lose weight, craving the acceptance and approval of someone she looks up to. Aunt Claudia is such an excellent horror antagonist - she manipulates Simi with mastery and ease, knowing just how to reel her back in. The tension mounts, character allegiances shift, and Simi grows closer to understanding what is actually going on in Aunt Claudia’s home. Things begin to click into place on Easter Sunday as the tension reaches a crescendo - the final Easter feast is a stunningly orchestrated, supremely intense sequence. The sound design in this scene is brilliant; the sounds of chewing have never been so rich in suspense. As Simi finally discovers the truth of Aunt Claudia’s intentions, it’s both chilling, wicked, and completely unhinged in the best way. The film ends in an epic final sequence full of blood, gore, and fire. Family Dinner is a must-watch for any horror fans; it’s a wholly unique and inspired entry into the genre.