FILM REVIEW: FAMILY DINNER (SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL)
Fresh from its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where it made a considerable impression, FAMILY DINNER‘s next screening was at the 69th annual Sydney Film Festival. The festival’s “Freak Me Out” strain featuring the newest indie horror films is quickly becoming an audience favourite. Anything that recruits new horror fans to our ranks is fine by us at Fear Forever.
FAMILY DINNER is the first feature-length film by Austrian director Peter Hengl. He is well equipped to make an ‘isolated family’- themed film-he has studied under Michael Haneke, director of arguably the best home invasion horror film FUNNY GAMES. You can see its influence on FAMILY DINNER.
We know that film subgenres come in cycles as what is popular at the time takes over. Folk Horror has not yet left the zeitgeist, and it seems like it is not going anywhere, anytime soon. As to whether the subgenre’s iconography is becoming too familiar, maybe films involving obscure cults focused on violently serving a pagan god could do with a remaster.
In FAMILY DINNER Simi has decided to visit her non-biological aunt for Easter, much to the chagrin of her angsty cousin. At first, her aunt is resistant but decides Simi can stay as long as she fasts until Easter Sunday. As rituals around food and fasting become increasingly intense as the weekend continues, Simi realises that the holiday is a more sinister celebration than usual.
Although somewhat generic in terms of the Folk Horror formula, FAMILY DINNER still embraces it and succeeds in cementing itself as an exemplar. The film is straightforward and may be pretty predictable to some. Yet, it does have an effective “will they?/won’t they?” push and pull, making it a captivating and immersive experience.
What I think works best for FAMILY DINNER is that, through psychological horror, it has a message about the diet industry as a whole and society’s fatphobia. It is so ingrained in modern culture that everyone’s goal is to be losing weight in a perpetual diet cycle. Things like “detoxes” and “intermittent fasting” and simply counting calories are being pushed so constantly that they are normalised. We cannot see them for what they are: starvation. Being painfully hungry and stranded without food and being painfully hungry and heavily dieting are the same form of deprivation. FAMILY DINNER makes this evident, which is why it may be an important film for horror in 2022.
According to my experience of a sold out theatre, FAMILY DINNER’s use of food might be the key to getting people not pressured to diet to feel empathy for those who are. With its extreme close-ups of cooking and plates of food, the whole cinema groaned in disappointment every time her aunt placed food in front of Simi, but she wasn’t allowed to eat it. The atmosphere was palpable, you could be downing popcorn the whole time, and FAMILY DINNER would still make you feel its protagonist’s starvation. In feeling Simi’s pain, hopefully, viewers will learn to apply that feeling when judging others.
A simple plot with four characters, slowly burning events, and lingering menace would rely heavily on the actors’ performances. Fortunately for it, FAMILY DINNER has strong ones. Nina Katlien excelled in her first film role and is instrumental in helping the audience immerse themselves into the feeling of isolation and anxiety ingrained in the film. Pia Hierzegger is pretty terrifying, with Michael Pink and Alexander Sladek giving solid performances. With such a small cast, it is worth mentioning all their talent.
FAMILY DINNER took Tribeca by storm and did so at Sydney Film Festival if audience reactions are the judge. It’s not a fresh take on the slow-burn rural cult horror, but it is a good one. I can see it making the top of 2022 or top folk horror lists. While its lack of originality slightly underwhelmed me, FAMILY DINNER’s societal message and tense atmosphere pay off.
“Although somewhat generic in terms of the Folk Horror formula, FAMILY DINNER still embraces it and succeeds in cementing itself as an exemplar”