TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Simi (Nina Katlein) is a plus-sized, fifteen-year-old girl who no longer wants to feel shame in her own body. Determined to revamp her lifestyle by losing weight, Simi heads to her Aunt Claudia’s house for Easter weekend. Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) happens to be a popular nutritionist whose bestselling health books are the key to Simi’s success. But after several days of trying Claudia’s bizarre methods while dealing with her unpleasant son, Filipp (Alexander Sladek), the nice holiday turns into a disturbing one. Now Simi is left to face her worst nightmares.
In his feature-length debut, Family Dinner, Peter Hengl’s creative pen meets his meticulous camera work in this deliciously twisted slow burn. Building on what could be considered a sensitive topic for any fifteen-year-old, Hengl offers intricacy in a simple story with grade-A terror and discomfort. Recognizing that this works best through his characters, Hengl’s dialogue is piercingly disturbing in all the best ways a horror movie can provide.
Claudia, for example, is the center point of the outcome of every character’s livelihood. Her militant-style regimen may be the only way to fast-track Simi’s weight loss. For Filipp, she’s the key to his health and well-being, too, as his vitriolic outbursts become more prevalent throughout. Every character’s dependence on Claudia’s behaviors and decisions is a fascinating storytelling approach for a concept that isn’t entirely novel. Yet, the filmmaker executes it with delightfully dark nuance.
“Determined to revamp her lifestyle by losing weight, Simi heads to her Aunt Claudia’s…”
These nuances wouldn’t work without the performances of the four leads. Katlein uses restraint to broadcast her character’s reasonable fears and executes that “survivor’s mindset” well. Sladek’s performance is an important one too. Audiences will question what’s real or a manifestation of paranoia. And it’ll be easy to have a different outlook by the end, thanks to the actor’s performance. However, the standout is Hierzegger, whose performance is so convincing it’s scary.
Family Dinner works despite tapping into familiar territory. It explores psychological power dynamics in a way that builds a growing sensation of internal panic. The script emphasizes these subtleties all the way through the climax. It also reveals clues that were there the entire time, too. It’s clever, to say the least, but the subtext is potent, refining itself to blatancy by the end.
Not without its faults, Hengl’s feature suffers from technical negatives. Specifically, the score – a crucial element of horror films – did not consistently match the intensity of the script. It doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but it is a missed opportunity considering how well-done other elements of the film were. Additionally, some scene transitions were a bit jarring. Again, most did not ruin the quality of the watching experience, but they were noticeable enough to generate brief moments of out-of-film awareness.
When all is said and done, Hengl’s feature-length debut is a surmounting success. Even with minor setbacks, Family Dinner is quality entertainment. His ability to blend subtlety in his atmospheric build is the perfect added touch to an overused concept in recent works. I cannot wait to see what he does next.
Family Dinner screened at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.