Fantasia 2020: “Dinner in America” says ‘fuck ’em all but us’

Dinner in America Dinner in America (Fantasia 2020)

Kyle Gallner and Emily Skeggs charm as lonely punks who find community in their own outsiderdom in Dinner in America.

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(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)

It’s easy for Dinner in America to irritate you at first. In the opening minutes of Adam Rehmeier‘s all-too-quirky misfit rom-com, we’re treated to all the trappings of a Napoleon Dynamite-like deadpan comedy, with brightly-colored suburbia contrasted with gosh-geez weirdos who don’t quite fit in.

One is more dangerous than the other: Patty (Emily Skeggs) is a frustrated, airheaded teenager mocked by her classmates (the R-word is flung around like confetti as people try to pin her naivete as slowness) but who’s infatuated with a punk rock band led by a masked frontman named John Q. Public.

Of course, John Q. turns out to be Simon (Kyle Gallner), a juvenile delinquent with a half-shaved head and a penchant for pyromania. Of course, they eventually find their way into each other’s orbit, and awaken different dimensions of romantic delinquency that help them become… not better people, but less lonely.

It’s a shame that Dinner in America takes forever to get going, because once our lead couple’s dynamic sands down its rough edges, there’s a lot to like. Gallner and Skeggs are absolutely electric together; Gallner has the sneering, murmuring lilt of Caleb Landry Jones but hides an innate sweetness beneath the layers of venom.

Dinner in America
Dinner in America (Fantasia 2020)

Skeggs, meanwhile, fits firmly within the oft-cited ‘manic pixie dream girl’ mold yet elevates it with a delightfully lively performance. She reminded me, strangely, of Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. She’s got a wide-eyed expressiveness and enthusiasm behind these Coke-bottle glasses that mixes nicely with Gallner’s piss-and-vinegar bitterness.

At first, their dynamic is a little too grating, mostly due to Simon’s sheer sociopathic antagonism. Initially, she’s a means to an end, someone for whom he owes a favor after she helps him evade the cops. It’s super aggressive in the beginning. But if you power through that, it makes the sweeter edges of the film’s latter half all the more rewarding.

Of course, Simon and Patty are just the Bonnie and Clyde/Heathers misfits amid a Midwestern-nice world of cozy family dinners and brightly-lit suburban dining rooms, around which several of Dinner in America‘s scenes gravitate. Each dinner sets Simon against a different family — Simon’s ex, Patty’s buttoned-up family (including Emily Lynn Rajskub and Pat Healy), and finally Simon’s own family.

It’s a shame that Dinner in America takes forever to get going, because once our lead couple’s dynamic sands down its rough edges, there’s a lot to like.

And every time, Simon’s abrasiveness brushes against the squeaky-clean Americana against which he constantly rebels. It’s hardly an unfamiliar trope, but one that builds beautifully each time it happens. We get to not just understand more about Simon, but see the way Patty’s influence rubs off on him.

Rehmeier’s approach is brash and confrontational, and sometimes the repetitiveness gets in the way of his broader points about the prison of conformity and the need to let your freak flag fly. What’s more, the undercurrent of slurs (both ableist and homophobic) feels abrasive for abrasiveness’s sake, and builds to jokes that aren’t really worth the edge. Still, it can’t be overstated how night-and-day Dinner in America becomes once Simon and Patty’s paths align, and they start to truly have fun together.

Together, they mend hearts, deal righteous vengeance to mean girls, and manifest a delightful punk song from thin air in the way only droll Sundance-bound dramedies can pull off. And to its credit, Dinner in America doesn’t let its characters ride off into the sunset at the end, reminding us of the brief candle such young romances can be — burning brightly but gone too soon.

But in its unwillingness to hew to expectation, there’s something curiously punk about Rehmeier’s approach. Hidden in the curious comic rhythms lies a crusty anti-establishment rebellion born of deep conviction. For Rehmeier, just like with Simon, love is all you need — even, or especially, if it’s dressed up in a ratty military shirt and torn jeans.

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