English writer Osbert Sitwell, author of The Man Who Lost Himself and member of the Ghost Club, noted: “For most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind.” Adding a thematically related quote by Ronald Reagan, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”
Since premiering at Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020, Dinner in America—written and directed by Adam Rehmeier (Jonas)—has received consistent critical acclaim. This treasured indie film is now available on Arrow UK. Theatrically, Dinner in America will be next released in Japan, in September 2021. One of the film’s co-producers was Ben Stiller via Red Hour Productions.
Due to the fact that Rehmeier wanted to be faithful to his vision of the early ’90s punk scene (which he personally experienced while coming of age in Lincoln, Nebraska), his project took almost a decade to crystallize thoroughly. And his attention to detail has greatly paid off, so it was well worth the wait.
Hopefully, Dinner in America will get proper distribution and online streaming soon, because many potential spectators might benefit of its uplifting message and playful sense of humor—wrapped in vibrant cinematography by Jean-Philippe Bernier—to counteract these murky post-COVID crisis days.
Kyle Gallner (Dear White People)—who recently won the Dublin Film Critics Special Jury Prize—plays punk renegade Simon/John Q, delivering a tour de force performance that won’t leave most viewers indifferent, for better or worse.
Opposite Gallner is Emily Skeggs (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a young actress who proves to be the film’s truly lasting pulse. Her talent is a hidden gem, giving to her character Patty a pure quirky light contrasting to Simon’s grittiness. Skegg’s portrayal emanates genuine love of a certain type of misfit, in particular of nerdy-looking girls from suburbia.
In the first scene, we are treated to some gruesome medical experiments that Simon undergoes courtesy of Nutritional Tech, a government sponsored company that compensates him with only a fraction of the money they had promised. When one of the doctors asks him, “10 being the strongest of the scale, how is the nausea?”, an unfazed Simon responds: “I would say 11.”
Simon leaves the medical center with an oversexed patient named Beth (Hannah Marks), who invites him to a Sunday dinner at her home. At the moment Simon succumbs to the advances of Betty (Beth’s mom)—played by a seductive Lea Thompson (Back to the Future)—family chaos ensues in the aftermath.
The “meet-cute” between Simon and Patty happens at the PetZone’s back alley, when Patty is taking a break from the drudgery of her job. Suddenly she learns Simon is fleeing from some policemen, eager to catch him at the behest of Beth’s family, who have offered a reward for his arrest and capture.
Rehmeier skilfully subverts the “toerag” stereotype that afflicts the antagonistic and sexist punk culture, by displaying each stage of flirting between the insolent and brooding Simon and the sweetly awkward Patty. Gallner offers subtle hints that Simon is strangely amused—yet shocked—by Patty when she dances to his band Psy Ops’ hardcore tunes in her kiddy bedroom.
After witnessing how their bond is strengthened—through several revenge pranks on a couple of despicable jocks, and shortly after that by forcing Patty’s former employer to pay her last check—we start to suspect Simon will eventually let her know the real conflicted guy behind his punk mask. Slowly Patty manages to make Simon relatable and eventually redeemable—which in turn makes her the film’s wacky heroine—especially during her rendition of the iconic song “Watermelon.”
A momentous dinner scene involves Simon’s bourgeois family, who are terribly dismissive of Simon and Patty’s creative music goals. Whereas Patty’s parents are quite lovable and naïve, Simon’s seem to lack the most basic empathy skills. In this specific scene, Rehmeier highlights how hypocritical and tendentious is Simon’s sister Renae, who despises her rebellious brother and belittles Patty condescendingly.
Rehmeier’s criticism is sharp and accurate throughout, unveiling the ritualized conventionalisms of the typical middle-class family from the American Midwest. It looks as if their entire lives are a mere attempt to flaunt their social status and their fake façades, while actively hating those who are capable of finding their own way.
Simon resists the temptation to go mainstream by refusing to be the opening act of faux-punk band The Alliance. Simon is a quintessential rebel in the mold of Marlon Brando’s cop-hating biker Johnny Strabler (The Wild One). Unfortunately, Patty doesn’t have many similar female counterparts, since her screen persona is such an original creation to date.
Rehmeier explained: “At its heart, the film is an underdog love story about two very different characters, each marginalized misfits in their own right. They find each other through music.” I think his film conveys a peculiar mixture of abrasiveness (“Fuck China Hut, Fuck America”) and tenderness (“You need to take it down a notch”) that deftly reflects the duality of these characters.
Rehmeier’s Dinner in America brings to mind widely assorted influences from indie classics like Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, Darren Stein’s Jawbreaker, Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America, Jefery Levy’s S.F.W., Jason Reitman’s Juno, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, among others.
“In a crisis a man learnt what was real to him and what was unreal; that he became himself, choosing what he really needed.” —Alec Waugh (author of The Loom of Youth and Wheels within Wheels: A Story of the Girls)