Betsey (Jessica Alexander) has stopped eating. The pretty British teen isn’t hungry, she says, and who can really blame her, what with the recent passing of her father and the pressures of figuring out the next chapter in her own life. It’s not just that she doesn’t want to eat — not even the lavish feasts dutifully prepared by her mother Holly (Sienna Guillory) each night and happily consumed by her precocious younger sister Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) — but all food repulses her. Her body no longer wants it, and as Ruth Paxton’s auspicious but ultimately overstuffed debut “A Banquet” eventually lets on, her body may no longer even need it.
The family’s home serves as the film’s primary location, an awkward suburban residence with a second-story entrance, a first-floor kitchen, and a baffling living room. Here, claustrophobia and disconnection rage, and “A Banquet” attempts to weave together a compelling assortment of absolute terrors. There’s the body horror, of course, plus concerns about growing old, going crazy, being a woman, being believed, and exposing all of that to the wider world. Betsey is an attractive vessel for such worries, and Alexander ably embodies her, but the film never transcends the possibility that Betsey might ultimately be just that: a vessel.
Justin Bull’s screenplay lays on scads of possible motives and reasons for Betsey’s empty belly — there’s the gruesome death of Betsey’s dad and the usual teenage concerns, plus questions of inherited mental illness and a fascinating dalliance with the possibility of religious conversion — before shrugging off most of them. Unable to settle on one reason (hell, maybe it’s all of them), the film rockets toward an ending that’s somehow both sewed right up and blown wide open. Since neither interpretation really satisfies, it dilutes much of the creepy power that has come before. Instead, Bull’s script offers answers no one asked for, including a final-act revelation about Betsey’s nonexistent weight loss that’s nonsensical, even as it’s played up as a great twist.
Still, the film’s probing first hour sticks. While not precisely a horror film, Paxton cleverly uses its expectations and ideas to build her story. It creeps, it chills, it gets under your skin, and though there may be nary a jump scare to be found, there are many scenes that happily hinge on the possibility that something (someone?) is just out of frame and ready to grab you. (Good luck getting through Isabelle’s many ice skating scenes without expecting something horrible to happen; skates are very sharp, don’t you know.) Mouths are everywhere, and close-ups of people eating, kissing, even getting their teeth cleaned, grate and worry and revolt. No wonder Betsey no longer wants to participate in any part of that, thank you very much.
Both Guillory and Alexander come out swinging and never let up, while Stokes and Lindsay Duncan (who appears in the second half as Holly’s pissed-off mother June) gradually grow into their roles and emerge as the film’s MVPs. There’s not a bad turn in the bunch, which makes it all the more discomfiting that the film itself can’t quite live up to the standards set by this gifted foursome.
As Betsey’s ailment rages on, “A Banquet” struggles when it can’t make a compelling case for what is happening to her, even as it inflicts obvious pain on her family. Betsey enters new “phases,” Holly spins out, Isabelle gets mad, and June isn’t having any of it. Horror tropes and chilling sequences aside, this is a story of a family on the edge, a clan forever altered by tragedies of all kinds, which makes the choice to render it on a global scale feel all the weirder.
“A Banquet” is at its best when it burrows inside the confines of its nearly all-female cast — here, it seems, is a truly new take on what it means to live inside a woman’s skin — but continued attempts to contextualize the saga in other ways fall flat. Eventually, Betsey and Holly carve out a tiny space for two, holing up in a single room, bound together by pain and confusion, worry and wonder, but the results are far more famine than feast.
“A Banquet” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it later this year.