Plenty of movies claim to be punk rock, but only a select few actually are. Dinner in America, the latest project from writer-director Adam Rehmeier, doesn’t just have a dude with a half-shaved head screaming obscenities as its lead, the film also sounds and feels like a great punk song, the kind made in a basement by a bunch of friends with buckets of talent and very little money. The movie charges off like it’s attached to the lead, Simon, as though it’s feeding off his angry, pent-up energy, hurtling forward and barely pausing for breath. And, just like a great punk song, it’s impossible not to thrash along with it, much like the other lead, Patty, does when she’s away from prying eyes and can finally let loose.
Dinner in America opens with Simon (Kyle Gallner, in a revelatory performance) doing a medical trial for money. When that doesn’t work out, he attempts to rob a suburban home but ends up setting it on fire instead. Simon is a bit of a pyro, but even aside from that, he’s self-destructive to the extent that it’s a wonder he hasn’t gone up in flames himself. Simon has no qualms about stealing, lying or damaging property if it gets him where he needs to go, which is constantly moving forward, like a shark. That first house is also where the first of the film’s many dinner scenes takes place, all of which descend into some measure of chaos, whether it’s using a roast chicken as a weapon or simply getting into a screaming match over who’s more of a loser.
The next home belongs to Patty (Emily Skeggs, wonderful) and her family, including beloved character actor Pat Healy (with hair!) as her meek father, Norm. It’s a small role for Healy but nevertheless inflected with his unique oddball energy, and he shines even with limited screen-time (a standout scene finds Norm stoned out of his mind and essentially non-verbal, which is brilliantly played by the prolific performer). Patty is 20 but looks younger, and she’s picked on by basically everybody in their small Michigan town. But, at night, alone in her room, Patty has the freedom to rock out to her favorite band, Psy-Ops, an underground hardcore unit from New York with a singer known only as John Q, who wears a black balaclava when performing (this may or may not be a shout-out to real-life punk band Masked Intruder, who don colorful balaclavas onstage and hail from neighboring Wisconsin — I’d like to think it is).
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How Simon and Patty’s paths cross (and why) won’t be spoiled here, but suffice to say the former ends up crashing in the latter’s home, and an unlikely yet sweet, tender romance blossoms. At first, it seems like Dinner in America might be suggesting that brash, obnoxious Simon is grooming Patty, but thankfully both actors look much younger than they actually are (Skeggs is 30 and Gallner 33, but they could easily pass for teenagers), which puts them on equal footing even if the punk rocker is clearly more experienced, both in life and in relationships, than the timid Patty. Still, an early scene confirms she’s sexually aware enough that any charged interactions between the two are mutually felt. Likewise, as things escalate, it’s entirely on Patty’s terms, with Simon even showing some reticence to crossing that physical boundary even after all his posturing. As bizarre as it might sound, and in spite of everything else going on around them, these two make for an adorable couple. Rooting for them is pure joy.
Dinner in America has that gorgeously sun-kissed look only seen in dreamy indie movies like The Miseducation of Cameron Post (in which Skeggs also starred), where the colors pop and it feels like summer all year round. The Midwestern landscape is lovingly shot by cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier, who gave Summer of ’84 a similar glow, even if the town where most of the action takes place feels isolating for the characters. The score by John Swihart, who also, weirdly, scored Fred Durst’s John Travolta-starring The Fanatic, rattles along in time with the film’s manic energy. It sounds almost like dubstep, but harsher. As for the diagetic music, both the snippets of Psy-Ops songs (including the titular track) and the power pop ditty created by Simon and Patty are surprisingly effective — the duo’s performance, in particular, reminds of The Clash at Demonhead’s song from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Psy-Ops, meanwhile, are a believable underground punk band, much like Ain’t Rights from Green Room, which shares DNA if not overall tone with Dinner in America.
It’s tough to do punk rock justice, especially if a director isn’t a native of the scene. The resulting film often feels like a pearl-clutching conservative’s nightmare vision of what punks must be like. Rehmeier either has a lot of experience with the scene or did enough research to accurately portray it, because Simon and his band-mates, most of whom are clean-looking posers, feel like genuine punks (“Go places? We’re not fucking sailors!” Simon exclaims when they protest his approach). Simon is sexy in a crustpunk kind of way, barely showering or changing his clothes for the entire movie, and brushing his greasy bangs out of his face self-consciously whenever he’s threatened. Gallner comes in hot right from the outset, screaming his lines in the other characters’ faces, but as Dinner in America finds it groove, the actor does too. He’s still a bit much, but that’s arguably what this particular role calls for. Simon is living a kind of nomad lifestyle, but it’s clearly not by choice, and he rubs everyone he comes into contact with the wrong way (though one moment, in which his reaction is perfectly pitched, plays into the specific indignity of having someone sit next to you on the bus when there are plenty of free seats available).
Gallner has eked out a fascinating career for himself over the past 20 years, choosing roles in the likes of Kevin Smith’s esteemed horror movie Red State and the under-seen creature feature The Cleanse over big budget fare. Although he’s consistently impressive, Dinner in America is a major calling card for Gallner. Simon is a fascinating contradiction; at first, it seems there’s no sweetness to him whatsoever, and Gallner plays him utterly without vanity, popping pills like they’re Tic Tacs and getting into fights with anybody who looks at him funny. He’s an aggressive asshole pleasing nobody but himself, and his gravelly voice could give Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born character a run for his money. But, gradually, as he spends more time with the life-affirming Patty, Simon begins to thaw. And yet, the greatest strength of the movie is that it doesn’t require either of its principles to change who they are to be together. There’s no makeover sequence for Patty, and Simon doesn’t decide one day he’s suddenly going to be a nicer person. They click because they’re good for each other, and Rehmeier trusts in their sweet, offbeat chemistry enough to know his audience will understand why.
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Skeggs is a total delight as Patty, bringing wide-eyed charm and ingenuity to a character that, in less capable hands, could have come off like the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She hasn’t exactly got a miserable life without friends, but Simon does help pull her out of her shell and become more confident. Skeggs’ singing voice (if it is indeed hers) is as much of a shock as the late Brittany Murphy’s in Clueless, and the suggestion Patty might go on to form a riot girl band of her own will make every woman watching, but particularly those with a love of punk, squeal with happiness. Dinner in America is about being true to yourself and finding your people, but it also tackles the very nature of creativity and what it means to be an artist. By encouraging Patty’s gift rather than jealously tamping it down, Simon shows what it means to truly appreciate another artist rather than seeing them as a competitor by default. Rehmeier taps into that indelible punk rock spirit of collaboration.
There’s so much to love about Dinner in America, which is maybe the weirdest rom-com since Zack and Miri Make a Porno (although it’s worth noting there’s no sex or nudity whatsoever; the tone here is definitively romantic). The film is funny but not self-consciously so. The recurring declaration “You need to take it down a notch!” should, with any luck, become just as beloved as this remarkable little movie itself. There’s lots of American flag insignia, a clever nod to how these characters live outside the boundaries of “normal” society. The feel is underground and DIY, the camera mostly handheld and often close to the actors’ faces. One clever moment sees the edges of the frame darken to single out only Patty and Simon, as though he’s performing exclusively for her. It’s often swoon-worthy, even if it doesn’t fit within the trappings of typical romantic comedy fare. There are plenty of moments to coo over, including the first kiss which is hard and sexy but still romantic, and the first time Simon’s perma-scowl finally cracks into a smile. The ending isn’t predictable or twee either; it makes sense for both characters while also being satisfying for those hoping these two crazy kids will work things out.
Dinner in America is a special movie with a genuinely punk rock feel and a charmingly odd couple at its heart. There are enough laughs and swoon-worthy moments to mark it out as the best, and weirdest, rom-com in years. Rehmeier’s film is must-watch that will hopefully find its audience the same way Simon and Patty found each other.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.