“Have you ever been to a dinner party so terrible that you may never want to eat again?”
Many of the best films can be summed up with one line of dialogue uttered by a single character. The Dinner Party, a comedy of manners directed by Jenna Ushkowitz from a script penned by Penelope Lawson, falls into that category. It is a densely-packed exercise in the staging of socially unappetizing encounters.
The 14-minute film, presented by the Miami short Film Festival, follows a young couple as they attend a dinner party being hosted by the boyfriend’s dysfunctional family. Serena, a paralegal, is the outsider. Her boyfriend, Steve, does little to calm her nerves before transforming into a nearly unrecognizable paragon of regression under the bizarre spell of his disjointed family. (This is one of the most compelling threads in the story, the slow unpacking of the mystery box of Steve’s upbringing, background, and familial dynamics that cumulatively result in a vastly different iteration of the person Serena thought she knew.)
The film embodies a veritable BINGO card of dinner party worst nightmares: a lascivious uncle sneaking sips from a hidden flask; Steve’s sister, Sage (played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, familiar to fans of The Sopranos as Meadow Soprano), a self-described “Celebrity Mom Blogger” whose own child runs amok during the event; an egocentric, delusional matriarch who constantly belittles Serana’s career and invites Steve’s ex-girlfriend, with whom she breaks out into song (the mother is a nice cross between Sunset Boulevard-era Gloria Swanson and Cabaret-era Liza Minelli); and, to top it off, the espresso powder upon the tiramisu, the attendance of Steve’s father, long deceased, as ashes in an urn placed on the table at his son’s elbow. The film extrapolates to full effect the awkwardness, hostility, and perverseness of a family out of touch with social norms, so much so that the majority of the characters more closely resemble caricatures of ill-mannered tropes.
Serena weathers the blows valiantly, shrugging off her S.O.’s unflinching acceptance of the twisted dynamics circulating the dinner table. The characters are distinctly defined, the actors playing up their roles without deviation such that we are left with a satisfying clarity on the vices and manias of each. Much of this can be credited to the crisp, clever dialogue dispensed in rapid fire. Despite the rare instances in which the quick wit feels deployed at the expense of the scene’s logical flow (a joke made for the sake of humor, not because it fits into context), and minor continuity oversights, The Dinner Party is an excellent portrayal of a stranger in a strange land, left to question her own sanity amidst the cruel rules of an in-group that happens to be one dysfunctional family. Serena’s uneasiness is tangible, familiar, and relatable, and the film does well to validate her (and the viewer’s) perception of the strange dinner within the film’s concluding moments.