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Writer/director by Peter Hengl first feature film, family dinner, combines the discomfort and setback of an awkward family dynamic at the dinner table with the horror of the holidays. In this case, the holiday is Easter, a rarity in gender space. family dinner unfolds its slow-burning, methodical narrative in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, centering on unstable relationships and strict, particular holiday traditions to create deep psychological terror.

Simi, fifteen years old (Nina Katlein) arrives at his aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) house just before the Easter weekend. Simi hopes her aunt, a renowned nutritionist and best-selling health book, will help her lose weight, even though she waits until she arrives to ask Claudia for advice. Claudia agrees, immediately subjecting Simi to strict calorie restrictions and strict rules. So Simi has to deal with his hostile cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek), while Filipp’s father-in-law Stefan (Michael Rose) is exceptionally warm towards her. The closer we get to Easter Sunday, the more strained the family becomes. The truth behind the behavior is more heartbreaking than Simi could have ever imagined.

Hengl drops its naïve young protagonist into a tangled web. It’s obvious from the start that Simi doesn’t know her aunt or cousin very well, her rare visits being only for personal reasons. This ignorance of his environment and people immediately causes discomfort. Simi, and the viewer by proxy, are perpetually nervous as she steps on eggshells to avoid triggering the wrath 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 ire on Simi and accuses them of not taking her nutritional advice to heart. Watching Stefan and Filipp’s volatile relationship becomes a source of paranoia, another big red flag that something is wrong.

family dinner applies a constant pressure of psychological horror, sending Simi from one difficult encounter to another within an increasingly claustrophobic household. Food, and its lack, plays a vital role in dread. Food and the ritual of eating are intrinsic to Claudia, who has made a career out of it. The way Hengl frames and incorporates the food provides more insight and answers where the dialogue does not; the filmmaker isn’t interested in spelling things out for the audience in a more conventional way.

Because the narrative is framed from Simi’s perspective, Claudia and Stefan are simply out of reach. To maintain an enigmatic terror, Hengl keeps the adult characters as outsiders. Simi’s closest and most frequent interactions are with her same-age cousin or phone calls with her mother. Keeping Claudia and Stefan at bay lends to the unsettling atmosphere but lessens the impact of the revelations.

Easter brings the slow simmer to a roaring boil. Heavy psychological terror explodes into violent horror. Hengl’s foreshadowing skills mean audiences can vaguely guess where things are headed, but his gruesome details keep you guessing. While the third act brings a more explosive payoff, it’s still slightly restrained. It is in the oppressive ambiance and atmosphere that family dinner shines the most. Hengl’s understanding of imagery and exploiting character insecurities goes a long way in creating a twisted family gathering of nightmarish proportions. Just like food-obsessed and particular Claudia, family dinner wants you to savor the details. It requires more patience and its gain may not reach the expected explosive heights. Even still, that leaves you with plenty to chew on.

family dinner had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, with no release date announced at this time.