Dinner in America

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Dinner in America starts raucously, in shock joke territory, and ends up as a tender love story. In scene one a zonked-out woman taking part in a drugs trial is gesturing lasciviously towards a fellow trial member, fingering the sliced meat on her plate of food in a clear “fuck me” invitation. He’s spraying puke across the formica by the way. By the finale, the territory has shifted into the domestic and the lovey-dovey though writer/director Adam Rehmeier has cleverly managed to keep the overall tone more or less the same.

This is your 1990s grunge superdweeb comedy revisited, with everyone a relation at various removes from characters in Superbad or Napoleon Dynamite or American Pie. The target is American suburbia. The leads are a couple of likeable, though scratchy characters. There are plenty of “inappropriate” remarks made in a story arc relying on manic pixie dream people, though Rehmeier’s great innovation is to make his female star a part of the story rather than funky deus ex machina. Here, the girl fixes the guy AND the the guy fixes the girl.

A bit more flesh on those bones. Simon is the guy in the drugs trial, a pissant punk with a sweary attitude and a complete lack of respect for authority – parents, to bank tellers, to cops – who on his release from the program goes home with the woman who was fingering her dinner, obviously expecting that he’ll soon be doing the same to her. Instead, having argued with her entire family and set them all against each other in the first of several set piece “dinners”, he ends up in a hot clinch with her mother and soon afterwards is being ejected from the house, on his way out setting fire to it.

One of several "dinner" scenes
The family that prays together?

Yup. Anyway, avoiding the police as much as he can, he eventually is thrown together accidentally with supernerd female Patty, a superfan of a local punk band who fingers herself to orgasm listening to their music and then takes a Polaroid to send to the lead singer, a mystery guy who performs in a black balaclava. Outside the confines of her own bedroom Patty is the most picked-on girl in town – a “bitch” to other girls, a “whore” to the boys.

These are our heroes. Two lovely performances. Kyle Gallner is good (touches of Cuckoo’s Nest-era Jack Nicholson in his portrayal of the massively disruptive Simon?) and Emily Skeggs is brilliant as Patty, a character it’s possible to like and feel sorry for, find attractive one second and pitiable the next, a funny, smart charmer and a hopeless idiot. Skeggs also sings at one point. She has a good voice. This is a career-making performance.

It’s a stoner movie, really, with yuks and “nooooo” moments thrown in every few minutes to keep the energy up while Rehmeier engineers the switch in Simon’s character from outlaw to lover, from external disruptive force to the hinge on which the film swings.

It isn’t entirely convincing, because it’s a massive amount of territory for Simon to cover in a short time, and he is a far more familiar character than Rehmeier seems to think. But both Rehmeier and Simon get about 95% of the way there, helped along by Gallner’s ADHD performance and a haircut on Simon – shaved sides, mullet back – that is cooler as I write than it was whenever this was set (just pre-smartphones, post Nirvana kind of time?)

A mix of the familiar and the fresh is what distributors are always after, apparently, and that’s what we have here. Imagine The Fault in Our Stars done with most of the niceness and mawkishness removed, or the Aussie film Babyteeth rewritten with more humour. Both of those had terminal illness as the driver, which doesn’t feature here. Terminal outsiderdom though. Or near-terminal, as it turns out.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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