One way to describe “Dinner in America” is to share the progression of my response as I watched it. I was irritated by the first 15 minutes. It felt like a parody—and a lazy one—of the stereotype of Middle America, all flowered upholstery and uptight family dinners and judgmental adults stuck in the Eisenhower-era. In other words, shooting fish in a barrel. Into this conformist world comes an agent of chaos, a pyromaniac anti-social guy with disgusting table manners, who rampages through the suburbs horrifying everyone. Since nobody onscreen seemed particularly real, it wasn’t clear what the joke was, or what, even, was the point. It was going to be a very long hour-and-forty-five-minutes.
I was so wrong. In cases such as this, I love being wrong.
“Dinner in America,” written, directed, and edited by Adam Rehmeier, is a movie with anti-establishment anti-social quicksilver coursing through its veins, but at its heart it is a sweet love story, one of the sweetest in recent memory. Sometimes a movie comes along and surprises you. Sometimes a movie makes a poor first impression but on closer examination you realize there’s more there than meets the eye. (I have always admired Roger Ebert’s transparent review of “The King of Comedy,” since it’s as much about how he struggled with the movie, and resisted it, but came back to it, hoping to see it in a deeper way). To contradict Allen Ginsberg, “First thought” isn’t necessarily always “best thought.” By the end of “Dinner in America,” I looked back on my initial resistance with a small sense of awe.
Simon (Kyle Gallner) is the aforementioned “pyro,” a drifter and bad-boy. He is Middle America’s worst nightmare, as the opening sequence shows. He has no respect for anything or anyone. “Blue Velvet” portrayed the beautiful outward face of suburbia. All those flowers and sprinklers and perfect blue skies. “Dinner in America” sees no beauty in any of it. There’s a scene where Simon stalks across a vacant lot, all cracked concrete with weeds bursting through, while in the background looms a giant glass office building. The contrast is stark, and says so much. Burn it all down.
After rampaging his way through one random family, he meets 20-year-old college dropout Patty (Emily Skeggs), whom we have already seen at home with her awful parents (Pat Healy and Mary Lynn Rajskub), who treat her like she’s a tween. Patty works in a pet store, and suffers constant harassment from two boys in track suits, who taunt her with sexual insults, and repeatedly call her a “retard.” (The language is pretty rough throughout, and a tad heavy-handed.) Patty is awkward, lonely, and in a state of arrested development. She secretly loves the punk rock band Psy Ops, and she calls the lead singer, a mystery man named “John Q. Public,” her “music boyfriend.” Patty has never had a boyfriend, music or otherwise.
Simon is manipulative and in trouble. Patty is susceptible. She takes him home with her. The police are looking for him; he needs a hideout. What then unfolds throughout the rest of the film is reliant on the chemistry between Gallner and Skeggs—which is considerable. She is so awkward and naïve, and he is so mean and tough, it seems like there’s only one way for this to go. It doesn’t go that way at all. Their dynamic is fresh, surprising, and funny, with frequent callbacks in the dialogue, using repetition to land the jokes and the critique. Patty’s parents warn Patty over and over to “take it down a notch.” Any time she expresses anything other than bland acquiescence, she is told to “take it down a notch.” When Simon finally says these words to Patty, it is an extremely satisfying callback. He takes the scolding comment, and not only turns it into a mockery of the small-minded people who want to shame Patty, but transforms it into a compliment, a hat-trick not to be tried by amateurs. Gallner more than pulls it off.
“Dinner in America” has its cinematic references points, in a continuum with eclectic iconoclastic films like “Ghost World,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” or “Heathers” (one scene in “Dinner in America” specifically references a moment in “Heathers”). There’s even some “Valley Girl” in there. I thought of “Dogfight” too, where a tentative romance blossoms between two unlikely people, a plump virginal outcast (Lili Taylor) and a trash-talking macho-acting Marine (River Phoenix). (Both couples—the one in “Dogfight” and the one in “Dinner in America”—hang out in an arcade and play Whack-a-Mole.) Unlike “Dogfight,” “Dinner in America” feels like it could go “Badlands” or “Natural Born Killers” at any moment. Simon is already a criminal, and it doesn’t seem like it would take much for Patty to go that route either. “Dinner in America” is an ode to the values of punk rock, to the DIY-ness of punk rock, its purity and anarchy, its skepticism and refusal to submit to the status quo—at least not without serious interrogation.
Skeggs plays Patty with humor and openness. There are a couple of moments where a smile breaks out on her face, a smile of such glee and excitement it looks like she might burst into flames from the sheer power of her own emotions. Joy is intense, especially when you’ve never experienced it. She’s thrilled by him. She asks him questions, always prefacing it by saying his name. “Simon?” “Simon?” “Simon?” She needs an excuse to say his name. And Gallner is explosive, violent, impulsive, but he’s got secrets, big ones. He is an example of what can happen when you try to break free from your conditioning. A sick society creates sick individuals. His response to Patty is organic. Chemistry isn’t logical. Chemistry just happens.
At the end of “Bringing Up Baby,” just before Katharine Hepburn’s ditzy heiress destroys Cary Grant’s brontosaurus skeleton, Grant’s nerdy professor finally admits what has been obvious to us all along. “I’ve never had a better time!” he shouts at the woman who literally wrecked his life in a 48-hour time-span. Consider his life before she came along. He was trapped and he didn’t even know it. His release from entrapment needed to be as violent as it was. He is shocked by how much fun he had. Romance is great and all, but what’s even better, what’s even more freeing, is having some fun. Having fun means you don’t care what people think of you. Having fun means you are strong enough in yourself to not live according to someone else’s rules. Having fun means giving the finger to anyone who tells you to “take it down a notch.” Patty, riding shotgun next to this scowling sometimes-scary punk she met just 24 hours earlier, can’t keep the grin off her face. She’s never had a better time.