'Set!' Makes Competitive Table Setting Actually Seem Interesting

Directed by Scott Gawlik

BY Jenna BenchetritPublished May 3, 2021

You've been setting your dinner table wrong this entire time. That much is clear after Scott Gawlik's Set!, a superb dive into California's competitive tablescaping scene.

The film follows participants in the six month lead-up to the Orange County tablescaping fair, which they prepare for with the same intensity and determination that one imagines Tom Brady might for the Superbowl. Forks have to be placed just so, fingerprints on the glass won't do, and if your menu makes reference to "soup" but you've got a consommé bowl on the table, you're as good as toast.

Gawlik has zeroed in on an eclectic group, among them Bonnie, a veteran of the tablescaping scene, Hilarie, the button-pusher who fancies herself an artist, and Crystal, the cheerful defending champion. While the film's subjects are fun to watch, things never get quite as cutthroat as promised, but it still triumphs as a compelling slice-of-life doc with a genial sense of humour.

Perhaps more a result of liminal storytelling than direct interrogation, Set!'s subject matter depends as much on class as it does on creative will (maybe even more so). Tablescaping is apparently a well-to-do suburban woman's sport, and the film's most obvious effort at prodding that is its focus on Tim, a young man who has all the passion but none of the disposable income to invest in his hobby.

Just by virtue of letting the cameras roll, Set! serves a hot dish of cultural idiosyncrasies. One great scene starts as a table reveal for friends and somehow unravels into commentary on the sexuality of middle-aged suburban women. At other points, the Americentrism shines through, with Hilarie remarking of her safari-themed table, "We don't want it too clean because they are in Africa, after all." (Her display is draped with bullet bandoliers and affronting taxidermy.)

Tablescaping means different things to different people, and Set! approaches it as an outlet for processing grief, for building self-confidence, or for pissing people off, depending on who you are. "What could be riskier than taking your very creative being and putting it out there for somebody else to judge?" Bonnie asks. It's a hell of a line — and, somehow, a fitting observation about competitive table setting.

Hot Docs runs online from April 29 to May 9, 2021. Get more information at the festival's website.
(Crazy Cow Productions)

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