All Liz (Nadia Collins) wants is to throw an amazing dinner party at her rural Australian farmhouse. An ideal host, old friends, and a new home combining to make an unforgettable day. Her fiancee Jackson (Evan Williams) is just as much of a perfectionist as she is. The film opens on the pair rehearsing the perfect “surprise” proposal, to best announce their engagement over dessert.
She toils all night long and into the next morning, complete with a regimented schedule of events that attempts to make every moment a carefully curated, social media-worthy experience. Her timetable is of an almost military precision, sunsets and cheese plates, perfect views and added interactive components to decadent desserts.
There’s a silly sight gag as Liz frantically redecorates, trying to best decide on the mood she wants the gathering to have. As she swaps from bright candy colors, to more fashionable metallics, to her final choice of an inviting shabby chic aesthetic, the title text updates to match.
Early arrival Mara (Mary Soudi) is more interested in blathering about her trip to Bali and flirting with Liz’s handsome neighbor Brett (St John Cowcher) than she is in helping Liz deal with the soon to be arriving influx of unexpected guests. Daisy has a history of being volatile, and a sharp eye for where to find the better bottles of wine stashed in the cupboard. Her presence is a guarantee that this gathering of the old gang will also open some old wounds.
An Ideal Host was made on an absolute shoestring budget. The only location is a rural farmhouse, and the film was made with a skeleton crew of roughly a dozen people. The choice to confine the film to an intimate gathering was a smart one, as it places the characters and performances at the forefront.
Nadia Collins’ rising frustration as Liz is palpable, as is Naomi Brockwell’s often hilariously sardonic simmering resentment as Daisy. Tyler Jacob Jones’ script is an affably biting digital age comedy of manners, and even the smaller roles in the ensemble cast are memorable and easy to care about as the planned beautiful evening becomes more of a pretty mess.
Tristan McInnes’ bemused Jon is the standout in a cast that is clearly having a blast, bringing quirky charm, some surprising practical skills, and a desperately needed dose of emotional intelligence. Be it a failed flirtation or some hand blown wine glasses broken in anger, he’s the one who finds a way to break the tension. Jon doesn’t have history with the rest of the group, and it falls on his shoulders to gently remind all parties concerned that none of their conflicts are the end of the world.
Except (in a clever second act swerve that is best left unspoiled) one of the evening’s myriad problems might actually be exactly that. An Ideal Host takes a deliberate twist toward genre territory in its back half. Liz, sunny composure already broken by Daisy’s antagonism, finds herself dealing with a botched proposal and an honest to goodness potential apocalypse before she even has a chance to serve the crème brûlée.
The tonal shifts are well handled, but in the more violent, action oriented scenes An Ideal Host belies its lack of resources in a way that will alienate some viewers. Robert Woods is clearly a competent director, but there is a distinctly rough around the edges quality to the lighting. Despite some nicely framed shots, it is often either too bright or dark enough to be muddy. This flatness isn’t too distracting in the early party scenes, but it does make some key action in the third act a bit tricky to parse, as well as underlining which effects are practical versus some budget-conscious CGI.
For fellow fans of micro-budget madness, An Ideal Host is 84-minutes of sure to satisfy horror comedy, even accounting for the ever increasing number of standout subgenre entries coming from Australia and New Zealand. Doing it for the ‘gram and gonzo splatter might not seem like a logical pairing, but Robert Woods manages to make his mash up one of the best blasts of manic fun that this year’s packed Chattanooga Film Festival slate had to offer. I can’t wait to see what party favors he might have in store with a bit more budget.
WICKED RATING: 7/10