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#HotDocs21 Review: Set!

April 30, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Set in the world of competitive tablescaping, Set! is one of those quirky, special interest documentaries that does a good job of introducing us to a world that I previously knew basically nothing about. In this case, that world is table-setting competitions, which, as we find out in the film, are not only very much a real thing, but are also surprisingly cutthroat.

Directed by Scott Gawlik, Set! follows a selection of competitors over several months as they prepare for California’s Orange County Fair, which hosts the Olympics of competitive table setting. This is serious business for the contestants, who put months of time and thousands of dollars into coming up with elaborate table arrangements, which will be judged on creativity as well as the proper placement of cutlery, dishes and wine glasses, per Emily Post’s etiquette rules. The one thing these competitors, who are mostly upper class women, have in common is that they all like winning, and are all vying for the recognition of being named Best of Show.

The tables range from the traditional to the more creative and abstract. For example, one of the competitors, Hilarie Moore, decides to make statements with her tables and has a penchant for incorporating her love of taxidermy. The other women have been put off by her ever since she did a table adorned with stuffed mice, and make no secret of their disdain. The sort of unsung hero of the film is Tim Wykoff, the one guy who is competing, who is working on a very limited budget and simply finds joy in table-setting. His table is a whimsical ode to Dr. Seuss.

It sounds like the setup for a Christopher Guest movie, and it’s hard to watch the film without thinking about what roles would be played by Catherine O’Hara and Jennifer Coolidge. Gawlik’s camera also captures how snide and cruel the contestants can be when sizing up their competition, leading to some uncomfortable moments. This is a quirky and enjoyable film that understands the majority of people watching it won’t be taking its subject as seriously as the competitors themselves, but is staged in such a way that we do get surprisingly caught up in the competition as it goes along.

Set! is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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