Not so much an actual movie as an assortment of Amerindie affectations, The Dish & the Spoon doesn’t waste a moment on recognizable reality, consumed as it is with checking off various items from its list of clichés. Writer-director Alison Bagnall (co-writer of 1998’s Buffalo ‘66) apparently never met a moment she didn’t want to drench in preciousness, as her story revels in familiar tortured-soul-longing-for-connection bathos and gray-desolate atmospherics via its story of Rose (Greta Gerwig), a woman introduced bawling and moaning hysterically over her husband’s infidelity. Decked out in a knit hat and an oversized coat worn over full-body pajamas, Rose is a hysterical mess of a woman who pays for beer and donuts with crumbled bills and change found in her hatchback, only to then head out to the blustery beach and an abandoned lighthouse to mope, where her plan is complicated by the discovery of a slumbering British teen boy (Olly Alexander). The boy has no name, is in the States because he followed a girl who subsequently left him, and, wearing an ascot and boasting a head of big frizzy hair, resembles a mini-Tim Burton—or Tim Burton character, at least. Though it makes no sense, Rose takes him under her wing, instigating a ragamuffin odyssey in which they move into her parents’ summer home to play house and plot how Rose can find and kill her husband’s mistress (Eleonore Hendricks).
Much flittering about ensues (generally shot in handheld close-up), with Rose forcing the boy to gender-bend role-play as a means of acting out her anger and self-loathing, and engaging in marriage fantasies that lead the couple to take costume-shop photos in old-time bridal gown and suit. Rose’s breakdown is conveyed with frantic, crazed intensity by Gerwig, but it exists in a vacuum of believable circumstance, emotion and behavior, as Rose and the boy’s dependent, semi-romantic relationship takes place solely in a twee netherworld of incessant dressing-up and aimless wandering. That things come to a head at a dance where patrons don 18th-century clothes is indicative of the film’s overweening quirkiness, which also infests an earlier visit to a brewery where the two play hangman (with Rose’s lipstick) on the bottom of a beer vat, or a later sequence in which Rose abandons the boy at a bar, only to return to find him charming the establishment on the piano. Bagnall’s empathy is sincere, but her tale is a thing of unconvincing fantasy, and her cornucopia of formulaic imagery—sights of undulating flocks of birds relate to Rose’s search for direction and harmony, while shots of Rose and the Boy staring off into the sunset speak only to the material’s overwhelming conventionality—ultimately typifies The Dish & the Spoon just as its characters’ outfits define their inherent offbeat-stereotype natures.