Jose Coira’s sophomore feature, “18 Meals,” is something of an overstuffed buffet, and as with many plentiful repasts, the problem isn’t with the individual dishes but the way they play off each other. Developed from a series of improv sketches, pic has the clever idea of following a series of characters through one day’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners, cognizant that mealtimes are the most social moments of day. Though Coira, also editing, does a fine job juggling so many stories, certain morsels are inevitably served undercooked while others are overdone. Still, this congenial (multi-)chamber piece should get fest nibbles.
A lovely opening sets the tone for things to come, situating the action in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela and lightly philosophizing on the number of meals served each day, and their role in peoples’ lives: “half a million choices to change the taste of life.” Eleven main stories follow with 17 principal characters, some intersecting, others operating largely independent of the rest. It’s an overly ambitious number to keep in motion, and introducing new characters in the dinner segment seriously over-eggs the pudding, though the early scenes especially have an intriguing flavor.
These include Vladimir (Pedro Alonso), an actor continually stood up by the co-star he tries to woo with elaborately prepared meals. He’s visited by Lucas (Xose Barato), a friend fresh from a pleasurable night with Nuria (Cristina Brondo), but it’s not until supper time that auds understand why Nuria isn’t quite so forthcoming the morning after.
The two meatiest stories come together at lunch. Sol (Esperanza Pedreno) invites old flame Edu (Luis Tosar) over once her husband and son are out, engaging in an uncomfortable exchange that reveals her manipulative neediness and his wounded strength. Meanwhile, at another lunch, uptight Juan (Juan Carlos Vellido) brings newly minted pick-up Ana (Camila Bossa) to a family meal, where closeted brother Victor (Victor Clavijo) tries to hide the fact that Sergio (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is more than merely his roommate.
Halfway through the pic, Coira (“The Year of the Tick”) focuses on these two stories and sets aside most of the others, resulting in an overextended feel while the rest remain underdeveloped. The latter is especially true of Macedonian immigrant Spacek (Milan Tocinovski), whose tale is never allowed to ripen. It’s unclear how much of the screenplay relies on improv and how much was actually written down, though it’s probable the early scenes are the most scripted — or perhaps the freshness of breakfast leads to fatigue by dinner. Shooting lasted a mere nine days, and at times there’s a whiff of the actor’s exercise hovering over what feels like a group of short one-acts.
Coira took home the director prize at Taormina, and his way with thesps is uniformly strong; he’s especially good at capturing the awkwardness at the start of a meal. Editing is a real strong point, impressively weaving the characters together in an unobtrusively confident manner, assisted by visual and aural threads. Shots of Santiago alert auds to the beauty of the place without heading into tourism-campaign territory.