By Maria Paglinawan
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan fails to live up to his Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter success in this multi-layered film that attempts to be like a psychological melodrama, but is really just a headache of multiple flashback after flashback.
Guest of Honour, which screened its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2019, follows Jim (David Thewlis), a food inspector from Hamilton, and his daughter Veronica’s complicated father-daughter relationship.
As any caring father would, Jim tries to understand his daughter’s life-changing decisions – in this case, Veronica’s choice to serve prison time despite not really committing the crime she was sentenced with. We see Jim’s frustration with Veronica as he lashes out through his work, which can rather affect the future of family food businesses.
The film opens with Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) sharing memories of Jim to parish priest Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to help him write her father’s eulogy. Throughout the movie, viewers get a taste of some troublesome characters: Clive (Alexandre Bourgeois), a 17-year-old teenager who wants to sleep with his music teacher, Mike (Rossif Sutherland), the creepy bus driver who also wants to sleep with the music teacher, and Veronica, the said music teacher everybody seems to want to sleep with.
While De Oliveira was accurately cast as the attractive young music teacher, her character makes you question exactly how young Egoyan intended her to be. Veronica, supposedly an adult educator in her mid-20s, presumably thinks it’s fine to dance around with her 17-year-old students in their room to “take revenge” on the creepy, cell phone-hacking bus driver. She also tends to act out like a brat whenever her father visits her in prison — even blaming him for her behaviour when he has nothing to do with it.
Meanwhile in several other flashbacks, we get to follow Jim as he visits different restaurants for inspections, determining whether the businesses get to stay open or be shut down for health violations. Egoyan intriguingly captures Ontario’s diverse food scenery by featuring various restaurants run by immigrant families, who, unfortunately — as the plot puts — mostly violate public health standards according to Jim.
The film also has a certain fixation on rabbits. Viewers get to see Jim and Veronica’s fluffy pet bunny named Benjamin — and a couple of deep-fried rabbit ears, severed rabbit feet and some rabbit shit — which, spoiler alert: was used for blackmail — and is a fixation not fully explained during the film.
It seems like Benjamin is the only thing keeping Jim and Veronica’s paternal relationship intact whenever he visits her in prison. On top of that, for some reason, their family seriously believes that rabbit feet bring luck. Veronica even explains to Father Luke why rabbits might be lucky: “They communicate with the spirits of the underworld."
While Egoyan attempts to portray the pain a crippled relationship could bring to a father and daughter, his characters fail to connect with the viewers and instead leads them to a path of a depthless, disengaged plot. In spite of his effort to pull off a final assembly of the puzzle pieces of the story, Egoyan leaves his audience frustrated about what could have been a gripping film.