There are few times in someone’s life where they feel the kind of overwhelming uncertainty that is present in late adolescence. In what can seem like no time at all, they’ve grown from a child with minimal responsibilities to being on the cusp of adulthood. There is enormous societal pressure at this point for them to answer the age-old question: what do you want to do? Who do you want to be? Some may have lucked into this answer at an early age, or at least have a general idea of what direction they want to follow. But for the rest, the great unknown that follows childhood can be daunting at best and paralyzing at worst.
This is the position that Betsey Hughes (Jessica Alexander) finds herself in at the start of A Banquet, the feature debut of Scottish director Ruth Paxton. Betsey has found herself somewhat adrift following the recent death of her father. Her mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) is supportive and affectionate, but also distant, clearly processing their recent loss more privately. Her younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) is also figuring herself out, but has more time to do so. Despite having her family as a support system, she feels alienated, at a loss. That is until she stops eating.
The tension in A Banquet manifests in simple, subtle ways. The way that Holly zones out, staring at nothing in particular. The way that cinematographer David Liddell films food being prepared for dinner in a way that makes it somehow look both delicious and repulsive. The unspoken tragedy of their patriarch’s loss hanging thick in the air between the mother and her daughters. Though they appear to be an open and communicative family on the surface, there is little discussion of his passing, or the toll it has taken on the three of them. It is left to linger and fester, like fruit that’s started to mold.
At first, Betsey’s refusal to eat seems innocuous, like a form of teenage rebellion. However, when it becomes clear that she is either physically or psychologically unable to eat so much as a single pea, it begins to take on a more sinister undertone. She reveals to her mother that she has been chosen for a higher purpose, that somehow her indefinite fast will help to bring about a significant change in the world, or perhaps end it altogether. It’s easy to see how this narrative is exciting for Betsey. Alexander plays her as a religious disciple, who has experienced the euphoria of grand purpose, as well as the relief of her decisions no longer being her own.
This contrasts effectively with Holly’s increasing desperation as she tries to find a way to help a daughter who refuses to be helped. Sienna Guillory (who audiences may know from High-Rise, Inkheart, and some of the Resident Evil movies) has never been better, communicating an abundance of love and fierce protectiveness for her daughters, while simultaneously exposing a selfish desire to have the problem taken away. This is exacerbated by a strained relationship with her own mother (Lindsay Duncan, excellent), as it is revealed that she had her own issues growing up, and is still recovering from the solutions that were presented.
The genius of Justin Bull’s script (which recalls similar family psychodramas ranging from Hereditary to The Babadook, and even Donnie Darko with its end-of-the-world prognosticating), is in how it keeps the viewer guessing as to how valid Betsey’s claims really are. Holly’s mother is skeptical, and even presents anecdotal evidence that suggests the troubled teen could be making the whole thing up. At the same time, despite ingesting no food for months on end, Betsey’s weight never changes. Then there’s the matter of the blood red moon she’s been seeing.
For all it gets right, the film is not perfect. After an effective sense of escalation keeps the first half moving, a major time jump in the second half causes it to run out of steam before reaching the end. At one point, it seems like it’s going to take a turn into outright body horror before reeling back into the more grounded family drama (fans of last year’s Malignant will feel a surprising sense of déjà vu). And though the film looks great on a small budget, the final moments raise more questions than they answer, and the limitations of that same budget are felt in a way that does no favors.
Shortcomings aside, this is a rich, slow-burn psychological horror that raises questions of faith and destiny within its unsettling atmosphere. The love between mother and daughter, no matter what tests are thrown their way, is what gives the film a sense of soul and purpose, elevating it beyond what could have been a more standard thriller. A Banquet favors mood and ambience over jumps and jolts, and less patient viewers may not be as ready to stick with it. But those who prefer to let fear spring from something relatable and gradual will find much to make their skin crawl.
A Banquet opens in select theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD on February 18th.