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Table Manners (2018)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

I grew up on a ranch, and I can still remember the fires that would sweep through almost every spring.  The bluestem grass, the walnut trees, and the oaken corner posts were all left scorched and smoldering.  But an amazing thing always happened:  Rejuvenation.  Green grass would sprout through the soot, singed tree branches grew new leaves, and the land somehow emerged better than ever before.  In Table Manners, an engaging new dramedy from Leli Maki, a woman’s life is similarly set ablaze, and she spends much of the film standing over its charred ruin.  Her quest to grow greener pastures in the face of destruction supplies much of this movie’s dramatic heft, but Maki and his able cast deliver just the right amounts of poignancy and knowing humor.  Table Manners may tackle some heavy subjects, but it does so in a way that feels refreshing and fun.

As the story begins, Megan (Diaan Lawrenson) possesses all the ingredients for a perfect life.  She lives a magazine model home with her husband, Lloyd, (Neels van Jaarsveld) and their preteen son, Devan (Julian Robinson).  This recipe sours when Lloyd races home and reveals that not only has he been involved in tax fraud, but also that government agents are in hot pursuit.  Megan can only watch in horror as their house is seized and their assets are pilfered.  She lugs what little she has left to her best friend Lindiwe’s (Renate Stuurman) apartment and wonders what to do next.  Stuck in this frustrating limbo, Megan finds that cooking can be a creative outlet for her feelings.  She begins a blog, Table Manners, in an earnest attempt to reboot her life.

Much of this film’s strength derives from the warmth of its performances.  Lawrenson excels at balancing Megan’s deeply bruised self-confidence with a radiant sense of hope and energy.  As her son, Robinson does a great job playing a boy forced to grow wise beyond his years.  Thabo Malema adds some welcome wackiness as a security guard with a surprisingly developed palate.  Megan and her father bond over beer in a moment that feels perfectly unforced.  This demonstrates how Maki wisely stages his scenes with patience, giving his actors the time and comfort to invest fully in their characters.  This movie features a talented, attractive cast, set in a beautifully-realized world.

That said, Table Manners isn’t without a few small flaws.  The story spends so much time with Megan’s initial meltdown, which doesn’t give her burgeoning blog enough time to cook in the movie’s oven.  A key conflict between two characters feels a little forced.  But those are small quibbles.  This film has enough heart and passion to make up for any misstep.

When it’s all said and done, Table Manners is an incisive study about a woman’s search for poise and purpose.  People often have a boundless capacity for rebuilding from ashes, for finding humor and grace in sad circumstances, and somehow coming back even stronger.  This movie captures all that with gusto.  A rare mix of smart and entertaining, Table Manners comes highly recommended.



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