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FAMILY DINNER (2022)
Directed/written by Peter Hengl.
Starring Nina Katlein, Pia Hierzegger, Michael Pink, Alexander Sladek
Simi (Nina Katlein) vicits her estranged Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) a week before Easter. Knowing her aunt is a published diet & cooking expert, Simi hopes Claudia can help with her weight issues. At first, Claudia says she doesn’t have time to help Simi as she has a very special Easter dinner planned. But soon Claudia warms up to Simi, recognizing her conviction to lose weight, and prepares a very special diet regimen for her. Simi is not to eat a morsel of food for seven days and accompany Claudia and her new husband Stefan (Michael Pink) in fasting before the big meal on Easter Sunday. Simi agrees to consume nothing but water for this time while Claudia prepares decadent meals only for her son, Filipp (Alexander Sladek) to eat. But soon Simi begins to suspect something is wrong with this seemingly perfect family or is that just her hunger talking?
Reminiscent of another horror film released about a young girl self-conscious about her plus sized body called PIGGY, FAMILY DINNER offers up a star making role from its lead Nina Katlein. Katlein is wonderfully brave to play this role which exploits her weight to show how it can affect a young woman as she is becoming an adult. It is an intimate look at issues that are becoming very controversial to talk about these days for fear of fat-shaming accusations. But Katlein presents Simi as convicted to become healthier and slimmer without making her feel like some one who is put-upon. Yes, there are those in this film that make fun of her because of her weight, but at the same time, Simi has some very powerful lines owning who she is. There is even a line about how Simi should like the size she is, but Katlein quickly shuts that down, telling the person not to tell her how she should feel about her body. This was an incredibly strong character beat that occurs late in the movie, but it made me like this already likable and determined character all the more.
While where this is all going is quite predictable, writer/director Peter Hengl shows amazing patience in revealing his final hand during the climax. He structures the film by ominously counting up the days of the week leading to Easter Sunday, making each day more physically and mentally arduous for Simi as he week goes on. This film relies on that suspense selling itself as there is an awful lot of time spent leading up to what some might call a punchline ending. But because Simi is such a wonderful character to follow, it makes the journey worth while seeing her go back and forth wondering if she should trust her Aunt Claudia or her son Filipp who both seem to be having a silent war between surface pleasantries.
It’s all building to something and with this being a horror film you know the other shoe is going to drop during the climax, but the slow pace is going to kill the interest for some who watch FAMILY DINNER. This is a subtle film. Not bombastic and noisy. It’s quiet. Slowly ratcheting towards something terrible and I feel the big payoff works. There are horrific moments all the way through, but they just aren’t the over the top stuff mainstream horror fans might be used to. These chills are psychologically bent and you just don’t know who to believe pretty much the entire way through. The final moments are harrowing and while I sort of knew what was coming, some of the imagery will definitely leave a scar for those with a weak constitution. I understand this Austrian thriller is not going to be for everyone, but the strong character work in FAMILY DINNER made me look past the slow pace and predictability, ending with a meal that’s going to be very tough to forget.