Review: A BANQUET, A Nightmare of Single Parenting

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
Review: A BANQUET, A Nightmare of Single Parenting
“We’ve all got problems, darling, don’t be the show.” At about the midpoint of A Banquet, a grandmother frames her granddaughter’s mental health crisis as an elaborate psychodrama. June (iconic character actor Lindsay Duncan, tough as nails with a hint of acid) is always on the periphery, undermining her own daughter’s approach to parenting. Underestimating the seriousness, and thinking spending money is the best way to expedite the whole situation, feels like a specifically Baby Boomer solution to a GenZ problem. 
Three generations of women, their outlook, attitude and crisis-mindset are on naked, acutely uncomfortable display in Ruth Paxton’s debut feature. A Banquet begins the with the strange death of Holly’s husband. He is bedridden with some kind of painful wasting disease, and dies (uncomfortably) under her care, in their living room. A young Betsey bears witness. Flash forward a few years later, and Betsey is on the cusp of graduating high-school, in an identity crisis, and stressing mightily about the future. After experiencing something, under a blood-red harvest moon, which she does not entirely understand. Betsey stops eating, and puts her life on hold. The stress and pressures already on Holly’s shoulders passes the breaking point. In comes June.
You might be forgiven in thinking a horror film with the title like A Banquet would be about anorexia nervosa or some other eating disorder, but the film has more on its plate. A fair bit more. It occupies a specific shades of onscreen hysteria existing in the centre of a Venn diagram consisting of The Babadook, The Exorcist and Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. These associations are, admittedly, a smidge too generous, as the Paxton's film occasionally weeble sand wobbles, but for the most part, A Banquet does not fall down. It has visual ideas and style to burn, but it also as the pacing and feel of a ganging first feature.
Where you relate to the film and its women (there are no male characters of any real consequence here) will likely stem from where you are in life at the moment. It seemed to me that the film was from the point of view of Holly. Full disclosure: as my own daughter is exactly the same age as Betsey, and my mother, of course, has opinions… of course I'm going to lean towards Holly's sandwiched GenX single parent. But the narrative perspective slides back and forth between Holly (Sienna Guillory) and Betsey (Jessica Alexander), with June popping in occasionally to speak her truth. There is also Betsey’s younger sibling Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) who is often given short shrift. Stokes is quite excellent in this somewhat thankless role where Isabelle serves to either contrast, or echo, Betsey. 
Either way, the female interplay does the heavy lifting here. It is meaty and nuanced, even as the actual story mechanics (and plot beats, best left unsaid) left me a bit baffled and cold. A Banquet is shot in ultra-wide Scope, which is a bold choice considering the film takes place almost entirely in one of the gloomiest homes I have seen on camera. The interiors are painted in the deepest, darkest greys where pale light can barely penetrate from its ‘rural-modernist’ floor to ceiling windows. The kitchen is forbidding place, where the food prepared therein is oversaturated and alien, albeit gorgeously shot in a way reminiscent, at times TVs Hannibal. Holly’s fussiness with food preparation and presentation (or the clever way she folds the toilet paper in the master bath into a sailboat) looks less like domestic duty, and are more like a quietly desperate coping mechanism. The drama derives from that stubbornest of human traits: Being unwilling to ask for help.
A cautionary tale of ‘super-mom’ parenting and generational incongruity, A Banquet also plays footsie with the supernatural. Betsey lays the film’s cards down on the table when she asks her mother, “What if there is not anything to figure out?” The film struggles, in the end, to offer any kind of satisfying answer. We’ve all got problems.
A Banquet will be released by IFC Midnight on Friday, February 18th on VOD and in cinemas in the USA.

A Banquet

  • Ruth Paxton
  • Justin Bull
  • Sienna Guillory
  • Jessica Alexander
  • Ruby Stokes
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A BanquetAnorexiaJessica AlexanderLindsay DuncanParentingRaptureRuby StokesRuth PaxtonSienna GuillorySingle MomTherapyJustin BullHorror

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