Writer/Director Peter Hengl’s feature debut, Family Dinner, combines the discomfort and cringe of awkward family dynamics at the dinner table with holiday horror. In this instance, the holiday is Easter, a rarity in the genre space. Family Dinner unfurls its methodical slow-burn tale in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, centering volatile relationships and strict, peculiar holiday traditions to create deep-seated psychological dread.
Fifteen-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) arrives at her Aunt Claudia’s (Pia Hierzegger) house just ahead of Easter weekend. Simi hopes her aunt, a renowned nutritionist and a health book best-seller, will help her lose weight, though she waits until she gets there to ask for Claudia’s guidance. Claudia agrees, immediately putting Simi on strict caloric restrictions and harsh rules. Then Simi must contend with her hostile cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek), while Filipp’s stepdad Stefan (Michael Pink) is unusually warm towards her. The closer to Easter Sunday it gets, the tenser the family becomes. The truth behind the behavior is more harrowing than Simi could’ve ever anticipated.
Hengl drops his naïve young protagonist into a tangled web. It’s apparent from the outset that Simi doesn’t know her aunt or cousin very well, her rare visitation sparked solely by personal motivations. That unfamiliarity with her surroundings and people breeds discomfort straightaway. Simi, and the viewer by proxy, are perpetually on edge as she walks on eggshells to avoid trigging the anger of Filipp or Claudia. Claudia is initially much warmer and more welcoming than her son, Filipp, but falsely planted evidence of hidden snacks brings Claudia’s wrath upon Simi and accusations of not taking her nutritional advice to heart. Observing the volatile relationship between Stefan and Filipp becomes a source of paranoia, another significant red flag that something’s amiss.
Family Dinner applies steady pressure to the psychological horror, sending Simi from one uneasy encounter to another within an increasingly claustrophobic household. Food, and lack thereof, plays a vital role in instilling dread. Food and the ritual of eating are intrinsic to Claudia, who’s built an entire career from it. How Hengl frames and incorporates food provides more insight and answers where dialogue doesn’t; the filmmaker isn’t interested in spelling things out for the audience in more conventional ways.
Because the narrative is framed from Simi’s perspective, Claudia and Stefan are just out of reach throughout. To retain enigmatic dread, Hengl keeps the adult characters as strangers. Simi’s closest and most frequent interactions are with her similarly-aged cousin or phone calls with her mother. Keeping Claudia and Stefan at arm’s length lends to the unsettling atmosphere but dampens the impact of the reveals.
Easter brings the slow simmer to a roaring boil. Fraught psychological dread explodes in violent horror. Hengl’s foreshadowing skills mean audiences may vaguely guess where things are headed, but its grisly details keep you guessing. While the third act brings a more explosive payoff, it’s still slightly restrained. It’s in the oppressive mood and atmosphere that Family Dinner shines brightest. Hengl’s grasp of imagery and exploitation of character insecurities goes far in creating a twisted family gathering of nightmarish proportions. Much like the diet-obsessed and particular Claudia, Family Dinner wants you to savor the details. It requires more patience, and its payoff may not achieve quite the explosive highs intended. Even still, it leaves you with a lot to chew on.
Family Dinner made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, with no release date announced at this time.