Americans say a lot about themselves with their suppertime traditions, though they probably don’t mean to. Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner in America assembles those traditions into a desperately Midwestern tableau. Sunday night football racists go with the old classic, a roasty golden bird flanked by sides, signaling wholesome values to veil their casual bigotry. Middle-class dullards heat up frozen chicken cordon bleu, a plate of artificial sophistication prepackaged for convenience. Hoity-toity upper-crusters choose a finely composed salad to accompany their high-end dinnerware, a lifestyle lifted out of a Williams Sonoma catalogue.
Rehmeier’s hero, punk rocker Simon (Kyle Gallner), enjoys—or, really, “endures”—each of these meals with each of these families. Simon lives in a state of crackling restlessness, like a pissed-off bird emphatically flapping its wings while scrabbling for a window to fly out of: No matter where he eats, he’s miserable, outraged and highly aggressive, the last of these being the spark that lights the plot. After nearly burning down a house following a family feast gone very wrong—Mom (Lea Thompson) jams her tongue down his throat, daughter (Hannah Marks), who wants Simon herself, breaks down in tears, while Dad (Nick Chinlund) and son (Sean Rogers) tear themselves away from the television and try giving him a beating—Simon goes on the run and hides out with Patty (Emily Skeggs), an overmedicated 20-something who lives with her tragically lame parents (Mary Lynn Raskjub, Pat Healy) and brother (Griffin Gluck).
As fate has it, Patty is Simon’s number one fan, though she doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know it either, not at first. Simon fronts a band called Psyops under the stage name John Q. The band happens to be Patty’s favorite, but of course John Q wears a mask and nobody’s seen his face, so she’s oblivious that she’s within arm’s reach of punk stardom. Simon, for his part, temporarily freaks out when he does the math and realizes he’s talking to the woman who’s been sending him fan mail and dirty pictures since forever, but after he regroups, they grow closer and they set about town doing punk rock things together.
Think of Simon as the vulgar, sweaty angel sent to change Patty’s life, though to spend any amount of time in his company is to be forever changed: He’s an agent of chaos in a mechanized, buttoned-up world built atop a class-based pecking order, vehemently and fruitlessly rebelling against America’s social strata for rebellion’s sake. Rehmeier doesn’t make explicit exactly what it is about America that Simon wishes to defy, but by the time he breaks bread with the William Sonoma family, viewers will get the idea. Suffice to say that young men like Simon grow up soaking in choiceless dissatisfaction, and they come of age renouncing their choicelessness. Partly it’s a class thing. In Rehmeier’s mind, it may be a geographic thing, too. Dinner in America doesn’t really cast America’s heartland in the most positive light.
The film maintains traces of affection for the region mostly through the empathy felt for Simon and Patty, two loners in need of companionship who slowly become better people by being with each other. Grant that “better” involves, among other things, a truly gnarly revenge prank on the two asshole jocks who make a hobby of sexually harassing Patty, and causing a scene at the local pet store where she used to work in an effort at securing her final paycheck from her stingy boss. “Better” is a relative term, and given the suffocating atmosphere of their hometown, where individuality is choked out of people and replaced by droning normalcy, the strong desire to revolt feels like a moral imperative. Rehmeier litters Dinner in America with hideous examples of what “normalcy” looks like, from the asshole jocks to the racist football dad. By the time the movie ends, Simon and Patty look like heroes in spite of their abrasive rudeness and reckless actions.
Dinner in America joins a long line of films ranging from Repo Man to Relaxer in the grimy canon of American dirtbag cinema: It isn’t graphic by any definition, but all the same, it isn’t for the squeamish. Instead, it’s for the punk rockers. Come for Gallner’s palpitating lead performance; stay for Rehmeier’s thoughts on what your dinner choices say about you.
Director: Adam Rehmeier
Writer: Adam Rehmeier
Starring: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Mary Lynn Raskjub, Pat Healy, Griffin Gluck, Hannah Marks, Lea Thompson, Sean Rogers, Nick Chinlund
Release Date: January 24, 2020 (Sundance screening)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.