“Beatriz at Dinner” is a captivating work of film, one that commands your attention even when what’s happening on screen makes you cringe or want to cover your eyes.

Given life by equally evocative performances from Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, it presents a clash of world views that could not be more relevant in today’s America within the confines of an intimate setting and everyday situation to which audiences should have no trouble relating.

It’s a film that’s sure to start conversations – most likely heated ones – but that’s precisely why it’s an important film to see given the chance.

What’s it about?

Hayek plays Beatriz, a deeply spiritual and empathic woman living and working in Los Angeles as a holistic healer treating cancer patients. Beatriz has spent her life surrounded by pain and has done all she can to lessen it, but that altruistic life has taken its toll, the sadness of it evident in her eyes and the palpable weight on her shoulders.

When her car leaves her stranded following an appointment with a wealthy client in Newport Beach, Beatriz finds herself stuck in surroundings that could not be more unfamiliar. The client, Kathy (Connie Britton), insists she join a dinner party at the house while she waits for help.

The differences between Beatriz and the party’s other four guests could not be more stark.  As the evening unfolds, Beatriz becomes more and more unnerved by the attitudes of the people around her, particularly Doug Strutt (Lithgow), a seemingly amoral real estate developer. The man’s comfort and confidence with the everyday cruelties that big business inflicts on the “little people,” and the other guests’ blithe acceptance of his behavior, confounds and eventually offends her.

The others, meanwhile, find it impossible to relate when Beatriz tries to share with them stories about her own background, her beliefs, and the people she treats. Even Kathy, who believes she shares a bond with Beatriz, soon discovers just how little she understands of Beatriz’s life or experiences.

What happens next surprises everyone, including Beatriz, who reaches a breaking point in the evening and finds she has no choice but to confront the evil she finds sitting across from her. But is it really “evil”, or just a different way of living that runs counter to her beliefs?

An effort at fairness

There is an effort in “Beatriz at Dinner” on the part of screenwriter Mike White (“The Good Girl”) to be fair in the clash of beliefs at the heart of the film. White and director Miguel Arteta do project the intent in the film to compel audiences to make up their own minds when faced with the debate that unfolds, rather than dictating to them who they should side with.

That effort is best exemplified by how the script casts Lithgow’s character. Rather than make him a more archetypal detestable lout, White and Lithgow deliver Doug as charming, friendly, and even seductive. As the film goes on, it gets easier to understand why someone like him might be so successful, and why people gravitate towards him.

What’s also so compelling about White’s screenplay here is the depiction of the people caught in the middle between the two extremes represented by Doug and Beatriz. Each is a believable product of their surroundings and circumstances, and each project varying levels of disconnect and denial when faced with the difficult subjects the evening brings to the fore.

Hayek, Lithgow shine

But as nuanced and clever as White’s screenplay is, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without what Hayek and Lithgow deliver in front of the camera.

Hayek provides one of her most arresting performances in years as the modest, deeply feeling Beatriz. The compassion and belief she projects is compelling from start to finish, but equally compelling is the vulnerability and waning of her strength that becomes clear as the film progresses.

But Lithgow proves to be just as dynamic and compelling, if not as sympathetic, playing Doug. As mentioned earlier, Doug is far from off-putting here, though his beliefs and methods in business might come off to many as deplorable.

He’d be easier to hate if he were an outright jerk, but he’s not. He and the entitlement he espouses are simply products of his experiences, and the tools that have made him a master of his universe.

Worth seeing?

As “Beatriz at Dinner” opens in more cities across the U.S., it’s sure to become a hot topic in the media and certain political news outlets. With how much the film explores the divide between economic and social “haves” and “have-nots”, it will prove an easy target for those who point to contemporary film in general as a vehicle for class warfare and attacking conservative positions and ideologies.

All the more reason people who love thoughtful, challenging film should make time this summer to see “Beatriz at Dinner” for themselves. This film is art, and it is art meant to challenge assumptions and spark conversation about difficult subjects.

Is it fun to watch? Not exactly, and at times it’s downright painful. But it’s important, and when talking heads are talking over each other about it on TV, it will help to have your own experience with it in order to form your own opinion.

Beatriz at Dinner

Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, Chloë Sevigny, David Warshofsky, and John Early. Directed by Miguel Arteta.
Running time: 82 minutes
Rated R for language and a scene of violence.