Simon (Kyle Gallner) is a crust punk barely skating by on the scratch he earns from selling drugs and taking part in experimental drug trials. Basically homeless, he surfs between the couches of girls he can convince to sleep with him. When one encounter with a girl’s WASPy parents goes awry (more on that in a minute), it ends with Simon setting their house on fire. It becomes clear pretty quickly that no one’s life is improved by having Simon in it.
Heaven help Patty (Emily Skeggs). She’s a 20-year-old dork in ill-fitting T-shirts tucked into high-waisted jorts, a perpetually confused look on her face. One day on her lunch break, she spies Simon running from the cops, but when they question her, she says she didn’t see anyone suspicious. A thankful (and, of course, newly homeless again) Simon charms his way back to Patty’s house (where a B.S. story about missionary work convinces her wholesome parents to let him crash for a few days) but quickly discovers she’s far different from the burnouts he’s bedded before. What he expects to be a transactional relationship turns into something much more emotionally complicated, especially when this sheltered, gawky girl asks him to take her to a punk rock show the following weekend to see her favorite band—a band that, completely unbeknownst to her, he happens to be the anonymous frontman of. As the days go by, their connection grows deeper, but as it turns out, a crust punk with anger issues and a price on his head can get into a lot of trouble in four days.
Dinner in America is an appealingly eccentric romantic comedy, but it takes a while to reveal its true nature. The early scenes feel like they stepped out of a ‘90s indie comedy: the leads play heavily into their broad stereotypes (he, a misanthropic asshole; she, a geeky social reject), there’s a healthy disregard for authority, the concept of the family unit is treated as a joke, punchlines frequently venture into crass/gross territory, there’s a few jocks-are-assholes-to-nerds scenes that make liberal use of the R-word, etc. As the story spools up, Simon’s strident attitude makes it feel like he’s going to be particularly insufferable, and he kind of is, but as he spends more time with Patty, you start to realize he’s also kind of…charismatically insufferable? He frequently talks in a deep purr, his head titled down so his intense eyes can look up through his greasy, unwashed hair. It’s easy to see his bad boy appeal. And Patty is a one-of-a-kind weirdo. (“Do you think I’m weird?” she asks Simon after he finds out she’s left a dead stray cat to decompose on her lawn just to see what happens to it. “Oh yeah, no,” he replies, in perfect Midwestern cadence, “you’re fucking weird.”) But she’s excitable and sweet and endearing. These two couldn’t be more different, but because writer/director Adam Rehmeier takes his time to build the connection between them, it doesn’t feel contrived in the slightest when it starts to feel more serious.
But Dinner in America is not just a romantic comedy just like it isn’t just the grossout comedy its early scenes imply. Rehmeier also has a satirical eye pointed straight at the American family. So many of Dinner in America’s most memorable scenes take place around the dinner table, and they form the thematic backbone of the movie, because the easiest way to really reveal someone is to watch how they act when trapped around a table with their family for more than a few minutes. The moms, in particular, hit hard. Mary Lynn Rajskub is hilariously restrained as Patty’s mom; she’d never say it, but she just wishes somebody would just taste the damn shell on their taco salad and tell her how good it is. (Spoiler: they never will.) Lea Thompson slays in a small role in the aforementioned scene that comes to a fiery end. Thompson plays the horny, neglected mom of one of Simon’s earlier girlfriends. She makes a meek comment during dinner about Simon’s hair that barely even registers as conversation, much less flirtation; next thing you know, she has Simon alone in the den, and is “seducing” him by slow dancing to the strains of England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “It’s Sad to Belong,” an ingenious choice in that it’s a ‘70s wuss rock classic that only an aging mother could love and a music style that any punker would immediately despise, but its lyrics are also about fantasizing about getting divorced, making her choice of makeout music even more endearingly pathetic. The scene is sweet and it’s sad and it’s funny in its awkward sexiness and it’s instantly memorable even though it’s over in a flash. Dinner in America is full of scenes like this that make you laugh and really stick with you.
And lastly, a slightly random aside: one other thing I really appreciated is how sincerely Rehmeier takes punk rock. “Punk rock romance” certainly raises the possibility that the punk elements will be window dressing, an anarchy symbol scrawled in sharpie onto the jacket of the generically handsome lead in an otherwise generic love story. But no: there’s one awkward scene where Simon tells Patty she’s “a punk rocker” and it comes off as kind of contrived and cheesy, but otherwise, it hits all the right notes. Gallner’s Simon is legit beholden to his punk rock, anticorporate, anticapitalist beliefs, and not in a cartoonish way either, but rather in a way that gives him personality and a discernible, realistic motivation for his behavior throughout. And the music by his band is raw, blistering punk played by Windsor, Ontario-based hardcore quartet Disco Assault, who are absolutely the real deal. Simon and Patty couldn’t be more different in terms of their personalities or life experiences, but they’re united by their love of this impassioned, abrasive music, two misfits ready to take on the world together. It’s a joy to watch them get their start. | Jason Green
Dinner in America is available to buy or rent digitally starting Tuesday, June 7.