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Off the Menu

Adding financial issues to an emotional family disagreement is asking for trouble, which is why family businesses can be such tricky things sometimes. Just ask siblings Joel (Santino Fontana) and Stacey (Kristen Dalton, Jack Reacher) in Off the Menu, whose family business is the popular fast-food chain Tortilla Hut. (Any resemblance to Taco Bell is entirely coincidental.) Recently the chain hasn't been quite as popular, and Stacey, hard-working career woman that she is, believes that they need to make their food more sophisticated to appeal to millennials.

Joel, however, couldn't care less about Tortilla Hut. His girlfriend Lauren (Jen Lilley) has just dumped him, his latest craze is training for the Ironman Triathlon and doing a 'cleansing', and he thinks of the family business as "just junk food". But Stacey is determined -- she needs people to investigate authentic local dishes to find their next new product, and Joel is going to discover something delicious in the American southwest if it's the last thing he does.

Meanwhile, in the sleepy little town of Villanueva, New Mexico, single mom Javiera (Dania Ramirez, Premium Rush) runs the town's only restaurant with help from her mother Cordelia (Maria Conchita Alonso) and adorable daughter Sophia (Makenzie Moss). Her cafe is regionally famous, thanks to her fantastic, creative cooking as well as being an important stop on a foodie tour of New Mexico, run by Kevin (Andrew Carter). He's anxious to be partners with Javiera in a restaurant in the city and a cooking show -- as well as more intimate partners -- but she's just not that in to him.

When Joel ends up stranded in Villanueva, he becomes convinced that Javiera's specialty, which she makes just once a week and then only for family and friends, is exactly the dish that will get his sister off his back. Of course he then gets off on completely the wrong foot with Javiera -- several times, in fact -- and it looks like he's ruined his chances of ever getting a kind word from her, never mind a taste of her signature dish. But for once in his life, Joel finds himself strangely unwilling to let go and move on, and it isn't because of Tortilla Hut. He's always been a fish out of water in many ways, but maybe he's finally found a place to belong.

I normally don't care for romantic comedies, which is decidedly what this is. Despite that, however, I couldn't help but be charmed into giving it four out of five stars. The casting is perfect, the dialogue solid, and it isn't just a romance -- it's also about family, fitting in, and finding your passion, and all these parts fit perfectly together. Joel and the town both hardly know what to make of each other, but their mutual slow acceptance despite serious culture clash on both sides is funny and realistic. There's a gentle humor throughout the film that felt refreshing -- the film never goes for the easy laugh or devolves into slapstick.

In other words, it was a pleasant surprise from start to finish and managed to win over at least this slightly reluctant viewer. And now if you'll excuse me, I think I need to go take some cooking lessons so I can make meals just as mouth-wateringly photogenic as Javiera's.

Off the Menu will premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 1, 2018, and will also be featured at the Santa Fe Film Festival on February 8. Also available on DVD / VOD on February 6th!

Image: 
Sophia asking Joel an awkward question for the 2,437th time.

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