Film, Film Review

NIGHTSTREAM REVIEW: Dinner in America (2020) dir. Adam Rehmeier

Part of the Nightstream online film festival


I can already anticipate the trouble I’m going to have recommending Dinner in America to people. This is a wildly profane movie starring an unrepentant asshole of a main character. The dialogue is willfully offensive, and the sight gags are not for the squeamish. The very first scene involves a character vomiting all over himself after suggestively fingering a plate of hospital food, and a major set piece begins with shoveling a dead cat into a garbage bag and goes downhill from there. This film is, by any metric, snotty, juvenile, and abrasive. It’s also quite possibly the sweetest and most heartwarming movie I’ve seen all year, and I truly hope more people see it.

Simon (Kyle Gallner) is a dirtbag punk rocker, supporting his band and his habit by dealing drugs, submitting to clinical trials, and assorted grifts and petty theft. On the run from the law following an ill-conceived one-night-stand which leads to some casual arson, Simon finds unlikely refuge in the home of awkward ex-pet shop employee Patty (Emily Skeggs) and her whitebread, all-American family. At first, Simon sees this as yet another opportunity for easy sex and wanton destruction against the squares, while Patty is simply thankful to receive positive attention from someone her own age, let alone a cool, attractive man. What neither of them realize at first, however, is that Simon is the lead singer of Psyops, Patty’s favorite hardcore band, and that she’s been sending him love poems and explicit Polaroids for years (she doesn’t include her face in the pictures, and he performs in a ski mask under the silly punk name John Q. Public). When Simon puts together the pieces he’s at first taken aback, but gradually takes a liking to Patty’s offbeat charms, and the two slowly develop a bond that goes beyond dirty photos and 7”s.

Going into Dinner in America, I had heard from multiple trusted sources that it was a charming gem (it premiered at Sundance and played Fantasia, and had been slated as the opening night selection at BUFF). For the first half hour or so, part of me wondered if I hadn’t heard about a different movie. When we meet Simon, he comes off as an irredeemable douchebag, and his quips and misadventures feel distinctly mean-spirited. Patty, meanwhile, can initially be read as a loose assemblage of Napoleon Dynamite-isms, or worse, an ableist stereotype (while it’s never stated outright, it’s generally implied that Patty has an unspecified learning disability or spectrum diagnosis). Indeed, the first act is strong medicine, and I can imagine more timid viewers bailing rather than opting to hang with these characters.

But a funny thing happened once the situation became clear: I began to care about these characters. Quite a bit, actually. Much of the legwork here is done by the two leads. As Patty, Skeggs is a ray of sunshine, a genuinely good person with just enough wry savvy that her ultimate romance doesn’t feel like a total mismatch. Gallner, meanwhile, carries himself with such snotty charisma that you find yourself liking him in spite of yourself. What’s more, despite their opposing acting styles, the two actors have fantastic chemistry, deftly bouncing off each other through scene after scene of witty (if snotty) repartee. Imagine if Nick and Nora Charles were characters in a Ramones song, and you’ve got a general idea of the dynamic.

Likewise, writer-director Adam Rehmeier is playing a deceptively complex game. Dinner in America is so raucous and hyperactive that, by the time its characters finally fall for each other, you don’t realize how hard you’re rooting for them. On the surface, this is not a subtle movie, but the transition from punk rock anarchy to swooning romanticism is real enough and felt enough that it sneaks up on you. Simon and Patty are, in many ways, cartoon characters, but the bond they develop is real, and it really works. The trick, I think, is that Rehmeier allows his characters to grow without changing them from the people we’ve grown to care about. By the end of the film, Patty has allowed Simon to drop some of his fuck-you defenses, and Simon has encouraged Patty to grow into her confidence and creative talents, but there’s no SLC Punk moment where we see them “grow up” into less interesting versions of themselves. Love and punk rock may seem like strange bedfellows, but they’re far from mutually exclusive. By the end of the film, these are the same smartasses you’ve come to love; they’ve just opened up their hearts a little bit more.

It’s something of a cliche to refer to a film as a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies,” but in this case the description holds water. We’ll probably never hear Hugh Grant say “Take off that cat-shit-covered apron and I might be able to get hard,” and we’ll probably never see Julia Roberts furiously masturbate while blasting a dubbed cassette of hardcore b-sides, but as the movie unfolds, the emotions it evokes are the same. As a snotty teen myself during the ‘90s rom-com boom I never would have been caught dead buying tickets to a Sandra Bullock movie, but I had an honest-to-god lump in my throat as Patty crooned “Fuck ‘em all but us” over Simon’s sludgy guitar, and if that means I’ve gone soft in my old age, I don’t care. Dinner in America has a big, gushy heart beating under its crust-punk exterior, and it’s one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. 

Dinner in America
dir. Adam Rehmeier
106 min.

Part of the Nightstream online film festival

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