First-time director Chris Naoki Lee grew up in an ethnically diverse community in Los Angeles, and based this timely and provocative drama on his own circle of friends. The slow-burning tension starts when Cal (Lee) brings his new girlfriend, Izzy (Imani Hakim), to meet his high school friends, most of whom he hasn’t seen in a decade. Hosting the party are Shannon (Kara Wang), the only woman in this gang of bros, and her husband, Vinny (Daniel Weaver, who also cowrote the script with Lee). In the backdrop of this amiable but uneasy reunion is the outcome of a fictional assault trial, which everyone is following on social media. This already tense group dynamic is fueled by the fact that Cal and his friends grew up in a different political climate—one in which a certain level of racial and sexual hostility was played for laughs, but their jokes just aren’t funny anymore, especially to outsiders. And coloring the proceedings is a dark secret that these friends share.
If the setup is contrived, Lee, who made the film in four days during the pandemic, deftly directs his ensemble cast, who are completely convincing in their roles as a bunch of old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. And the fictional trial case is a clever device, raising relevant questions without preconceived ideas of guilt. Dinner Party is a sober look at where society is today, suggesting that maybe we can’t all get along after all.