A Banquet (2021)

Widowed mother Holly (Sienna Guillory, Jill Valentine from the Resident Evil movies) finds herself facing a crisis of faith over, well, faith when her teen daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander, Glasshouse) undergoes a divine moment and claims that her body only exists to serve a higher power.

Could this be real? Or is the family still dealing with the suicide of Holly’s husband and the father to her children? And since Betsey found her father’s body, is she feeling the loss most of all as she cuts herself off from popularity and friends and even life?

And then one night, Holly finds herself lured into the woods, enchanted and now can’t stand to be around food, refusing to eat and never losing weight, making doctors question their medical training. In fact, she soon grows to actually fear even being in the same room as any nourishment, which is a problem, as Holly deals with the pain by making huge feasts that her sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) happily devours. And Holly’s mother June, played by Lindsay Duncan, is incredible and brings another type of pain to the story.

So what is behind all this? Mental illness? Possession? Depression? All of it? None of it? I’m tempted to use the cliche that the filmmakers want to have their cake and eat it too, but the truth is that this movie never really settles on any one reason. That said, it’s a stark meditation on loss and how that takes us to some incredbly bad places.

Director Ruth Paxton (making her first full length film) and writer Justin Bull (who wrote and directed Merge) ask what obsessions after loss are healthy — is getting really into figure skating as bad as having a glimpse at the apocalypse and losing your mind? — and which aren’t. The home that this all takes place in feels like the dark homes of people you’ve dated for brief moments and had time intersect to bring you into their family life for holidays and trap you inside places they knew so well and you found alien, foreboding and escape worthy.

It’s strange because this movie seems to be so sure of what it is in the first hour, then gradualy loses its faith within itself to take the film to where it needs to go. The hard part is that the start of the movie, the build and the dread is so great that the fact that it doesn’t stick a landing hurts worse than a typical movie. So many modern movies seem to have this same malady — the end should be as important as the beginning, after all.

A Banquet is available in select theaters, on digital plaforms and on VOD from IFC Midnight.

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