Justin Lockwood says Family Dinner maintains a grim tone, but it’s a fun and schlocky film.
In his feature film debut, Family Dinner, German writer and director Peter Hengl’s narrative could be interpreted as a modern-day gloss on the famous story “Hansel and Gretel” from Grimm's Fairy Tales (1812). It centers on a girl (Nina Katlein) and a boy (Alexander Sladek) who come to suspect that they’re in the clutches of a hungry witch (Pia Hierzegger). The setting and inclusion of weight loss anxieties make for an involving and unsettling spin on the narrative.
Simi (Katlein) is visiting her Aunt Claudia (Hierzegger), a famous cookbook author, for the week leading up to Easter. Simi’s hidden agenda, she is determined to lose weight through her aunt’s patented advice. So devoted to this goal, she puts up with the off-putting family dynamics among Claudia, her husband Stefan (Michael Pink), and cousin Filip (Sladek).
Simi is told that she can’t stay for Easter because the family will be enjoying a private dinner. However, Claudia changes her mind after taking her niece on as a “pupil” in a bizarre and extreme starvation diet. The sound design underscores this ordeal with audible grumbling from poor Simi’s stomach. As the days wear on, Simi comes to suspect that her aunt is working on something more sinister than a new book.
Katlein is a strong and believable lead, fully embodying Simi's suffering in her quest to lose weight. Hierzegger is perfectly cast as the insinuating and sinister Aunt Claudia. Sladek is also strong in a compellingly strange performance reminiscent of Kodi Smit McPhee’s turn in The Power of the Dog (2021). At first, the excessively spoiled Filip comes off like Mommy’s Little Incel, but he emerges as something altogether more tragic.
Family Dinner maintains a grim tone, but it’s a fun and schlocky film. The closing credits song, “A Formidable Marinade” by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, reveals that the filmmakers are in on the joke with its tongue-in-cheek chorus, “Sodomy is not just for animals. Human flesh is not just for cannibals.” The body image subtext is deployed just enough to be effective but not overdone. A brief conversation between Filip and Simi questioning her determination to lose weight reveals a fresh point of view without taking over the story. Family Dinner is never heavy-handed, just creepy and enjoyably twisted.
Family Dinner premiered at the Tribeca Festival on June 10, 2022.