What’s the most important meal of the day? No, look, forget what the cereal companies have tried to tell you: it’s not breakfast, it’s dinner. That’s the one that gets all the significance loaded onto it. It’s the one you invite a date to. It’s the one you go somewhere fancy for when there’s something to celebrate. And it’s the one where, at least according to the movies, the whole family gathers together to break bread, chat about their day… and bring all that simmering resentment out into the open.
Making that trope very, very explicit, Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner in America is an unconventional love story that unfolds through a series of difficult dinners. There’s one with wildly inappropriate flirtation, one with fraudulent religious guilt-tripping, and more than one with deeply disappointed parents, and all of them lead to new revelations about rebellious punk rocker Simon or awkward pet shop employee Patty.
American Beauty (1999)
Middle-aged and miserable, American Beauty’s Lester Burnham decides he’s had enough and sets about destroying his life – including, during one explosive family dinner, an unfortunate plate of asparagus. The meal starts out terse, as Lester and Carolyn’s teenage daughter arrives late, and the tension quickly ratchets up as Carolyn makes it clear how much she disapproves of Lester’s choices. Years of palpable resentment quickly bubble over, and before long the asparagus hits the wall. There’s no going back from that, really, is there?
I Heart Huckabees (2004)
There’s more food-throwing in I Heart Huckabees. After a series of coincidences that they’re convinced are meaningful, environmental activists Albert Markovski and Tommy Corn are invited to dinner with the foster family of Sudanese refugee Stephen Nimieri. Unfortunately, his adopted family are Christian, Republican, and extremely pro-petroleum, and a seemingly innocuous chat soon devolves into, yes, more yelling and more food throwing.
Here, it’s a bread roll that goes flying, which is at least easier to clean up than cooked asparagus and crockery shards, but it represents a similar breakdown in communication, and a similarly ruptured relationship.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Of all the things you’re supposed to avoid talking about at the dinner table, politics is definitely top of the list. So when Elizabeth Darko announces to her assembled family that she’s planning to vote for Michael Dukakis in the upcoming presidential election, it kicks off a huge argument. Initially, the fight sees Elizabeth needling her parents, positioning herself as part of a progressive youth movement intent on overthrowing their more traditional, old-fashioned values, but things get nastier – and more personal! – when her brother Donnie joins in the row.
Maybe it’s because actors Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal are siblings in real life as well as on screen, but the way they bounce off one another, prodding at weaknesses and revealing secrets in a perfectly coordinated row, is both painful and fascinating to watch. Their creative swearing is the cherry on the top of this sharply observed portrayal of family life.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Maybe “awkward” isn’t the most appropriate descriptor for this one. It’s actively horrifying. Towards the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, final girl Sally Hardesty is brought to the dinner table with the Sawyer family, but it’s pretty explicitly understood that she’s not there as a guest. She is dinner. The honour of killing her goes to the aged grandfather of the clan, but though he sucks eagerly at a cut on Sally’s hand, he lacks the strength to actually murder her.
Maybe that is a little awkward, actually, for someone who was once the most revered killer in the slaughterhouse. And letting the main course jump out of the window to freedom is a bit of a faux pas, too.
There’s no right way to react to tragedy, of course, but the way that the Graham family in Ari Aster’s devastating debut Hereditary respond to the tragic accidental death of youngest daughter Charlie is definitely not ideal. Rather than drawing together, the surviving family – mum Annie, dad Steve and teenage son Peter – pull themselves apart, each retreating into his or her individual grief.
As always, though, sitting down to dinner loosens their tongues. In a bravura performance by Toni Collette, all of the pent-up horror and pain comes spilling out in one tearful monologue. It’s genuinely difficult to sit through, even when you’re safely on the other side of a screen. There are plenty of squirm-inducing moments in this film, many far bloodier than this scene, but this might still be the one you want to cover your eyes for.
Back to the Future (1985)
Pity poor Marty McFly. Admittedly, no-one’s yelling at him or throwing anything at him when he sits down to dinner with his extended family in 1955. Instead, they serve him meatloaf and invite him to watch their brand new, state-of-the-art black-and-white television.
The problem is, they’re too a little bit too friendly. Not knowing that the time-travelling teen is related to them, Marty’s grandparents quiz him about his family background, while his mum gazes adoringly at him, squeezes his thigh under the table, and suggests he sleeps over in her bedroom. Considering Robert Zemeckis’s classic sci-fi comedy isn’t a horror movie, that’s got to be one of the most disturbing of all the awkward conversations on this list.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Picky eater? Probably best you decline any invitations from Dr Frank-N-Furter, then. At his dinner parties, you eat what you’re given, and what’s on the menu is something of a… tender subject. In one sublimely awkward scene, a series of double entendres reveals that it’s Meat Loaf for dinner, prepared to Frank’s very specific recipe…