This year has really seen a boom in cannibalism, isn’t it? Or has there always been a steady source of films based on that topic? Either way, one thing is for sure that we haven’t been desensitized to the tradition (hopefully, largely fictional) of eating fellow human beings. Earlier this year, Fresh (2022), starring Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar-Jones, drew horrified reactions from audiences when it was revealed that Steve (Stan) sells human meat; which is then consumed by so many other people. In Resurrection (2022), Eli Roth only insinuated that he had done the deed, causing Rebecca Hall and viewers to panic. And then the third act happened. Family Dinner (2022) falls somewhere in the middle as it tackles body positivity and toxic parenthood within the confines of a tense household.
Written and directed by Peter Hengl, Family Dinner follows 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) as she visits her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) for the Easter holiday week. Simi says that she wanted to meet Claudia because she hasn’t seen after she divorced Simi’s uncle. But that’s not the whole truth. Claudia is a popular nutritionist who has written some best-selling health books. And as a plus-sized girl, Simi wants her advice on how to lose weight. Claudia’s methods are tough and they become increasingly fascist in nature, instead of being a nurturing guidance of sorts. As if things aren’t weird enough, Simi’s cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek) takes on an incredibly antagonist role for no apparent reason while Filipp’s step-dad Stefan (Michael Pink) tries to “comfort” her. On top of that, as Easter Sunday approaches, Simi comes across clues pointing towards some kind of a religious ceremony.
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Hengl understands that family visits of any kind are a recipe for disaster. No amount of planning, no amount of generosity, no amount of time that you’ve spent growing up can stop a family visit from derailing at some point. If you are thinking about that one time things went well with your relatives, it is probably an exception and definitely not the rule. Hengl uses that universal theory and throws every kind of uncomfortable topic; that too in the first 20-30 minutes of the movie. Body shaming? Check. Taboo horniness? Check. Threatening by keeping dead animals in the guest’s bed? Check. Abusive family ties? Check. Ritualistic symbols and runes? Check. The title itself indicates that there’s a family dinner. Wrong! There’s one for each chapter and there are seven chapters. And with the help of DOP Gabriel Krajanek, editor Sebastian Schreiner, and sound designer Lenja Gathmann, Hengl turns the process of eating those delicious-looking meals into a nerve-wracking viewing experience.
The performances from the cast are amazing. Katlein is the star of the movie as she deftly shifts between shades of fear, trepidation, compassion, submissiveness and eventually, courage. The make-up team must have done some work to depict Simi’s decaying state of mind and physique. But that is made noticeable by Katlein’s performance. You don’t need lengthy monologues or exposition to understand the kind of turmoil that’s going inside Simi’s mind as she is switching between committing to Claudia’s routine or loving her body as it is. Talking about Claudia, Hierzegger is fantastic as the jittery and abusive parent who only knows two kinds of love: too much or too little. She imbues every single line she utters with so many condescending layers that it is fascinating to watch. Pink is equally good as Claudia’s puppet. Seeing him try to be “the man” when Claudia isn’t around is morbidly hilarious. Sladek does steal the spotlight though by effortlessly portraying Filipp’s eccentric and traumatized sides.
The real problem of Family Dinner though is its final act. Hengl does a splendid job of tackling the issue of body positivity and how harmful crash courses on losing weight can be, physically and psychologically. By putting someone as impressionable as Simi in the center, Hengl brilliantly plays with you as he makes you root for her while making you question what you are rooting for her to achieve. Do you want her to complete the mission? Or do you want her to rebel and leave? Does leaving mean that she’s a quitter? If she doesn’t quit, does that mean she’s succumbing to the “system”? But then the twist arrives (not exactly out of left field) and Hengl doesn’t give it time to breathe. There are crumbs of information that hint at the notion that Claudia has gone off the deep end because of her recent failures. However, that’s not enough to justify the nature of the twist, especially since it derails conversations about health and body image.
In conclusion, is Family Dinner worth a watch? Sure it is. Just don’t watch it while eating or on an empty stomach or with your stomach full. Be somewhere in the middle before watching the movie because, no matter how tough you think you are, there are moments that will get to you. Maybe not all of them, but at least one of them will make you sit up. Additionally, it is worth a watch because the representation of plus-sized characters have come a long way, specifically in the horror genre. There is an argument to be made about whether movies like Family Dinner and Piggy (2022) still make plus-sized characters go through inhumane circumstances to get its point across about how society treats them. As someone who isn’t an expert on said argument, I’ll refrain from commenting on it and only urge you to watch the movie and make your own opinion.
Family Dinner premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival