‘Eat With Me’ asks us to break bread with diversity

New release explores the cultural dynamics in gender and sexual orientation

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Teddy Chen Culver as Elliot and Aidan Bristow as Ian in “Eat With Me”

Sexual orientation provides the obvious protein punch in writer-director David Au’s debut feature, following his shorts “Fresh Like Strawberries” and “The Boxer,” but the real added seasoning in “Eat With Me” comes from watching a Chinese mother struggle with adapting to the life changes all around her.

Emma (Sharon Omi) wakes up to a flavorless marriage, and rather than simply staying put and suffering in silence, she seeks to find some semblance of what’s missing. And while her first steps seem tentative—she winds up on the restaurant doorstep of her son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver)—what she does next is pivotal. Emma faces up to so much of what has been unspoken in her life.

Elliot is gay. That declarative statement, that simple bit of truth has stood as a barrier of sorts between Elliot and his mother (and likely his father as well). But now, as Emma asks to stay with Elliot while she tries to figure out her own next move, she must come to terms with this aspect of her son’s life. Helping her quite inadvertently along the way is Elliot’s next door neighbor, Maureen (Nicole Sullivan), a boisterous character, the kind of spunky best friend a woman like Emma desperately needs. Maureen lives her life out loud, in scream queen fashion, and the example is good for Emma.

The odd-couple pairing relegates Elliot to the sidelines for most of the movie and that’s not exactly an unwelcome development because Elliot is much like his mother. He is a victim of Chinese cultural repressiveness, which packs the one-two punch of the stereotypes of excellence above all else and blindness to anything other than traditional values (these notions sound like the unrealistic ideas American society embraced in the 1950s, right?). Elliot finds himself in loveless romantic situations and bogged down trying to command a restaurant by giving customers anonymous Chinese food they could find anywhere.

His respite comes after a chance meeting with Ian (Aidan Bristow), a musician with a freer spirit who inspires Elliot to not only embrace the possibility of a healthy relationship, but also to dare to cook with passion. The lesson for both Elliot and Emma is that passion can make and save lives of quiet desperation.

All of Elliot’s scenes unfold in typical rom-com beats, but there is little to no humor in these moments. There is just the heavy cloud of expectation raining down on poor Elliot, which makes him quite a dull character. Emma’s storyline swoops in though, to save the day, not because it offers anything original, but in Omi’s portrayal of Emma’s neurotic breakdown. Emma is never ready to face any of the issues or situations that keep popping up as a result of leaving her husband, but she also never runs away from them. The barrage continues and Omi’s eyes open wider, taking it all in, past what would seem to be her breaking point. Even when the movie sets up what should be a classic dream-like sequence (and a fabulous minor star cameo), we know that, because this is Emma’s life, this isn’t a dream. In fact, it is the final straw, the turning point for her, and ultimately even Elliot.

“Eat With Me” is about shattering cultural images and stereotypes laid upon us, and becoming the best and most honest versions of ourselves. Then and only then, can we dare to shoulder any sense of responsibility to social and/or racial categories.

“Eat With Me” is currently available on VOD and DVD.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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