Carried by Skeggs and Gellner’s relentlessly flickering energy, Dinner in America is a modest but unexpectedly sweet experience.
Adam Rehmeier’s sophomore film Dinner in America updates an early-2000s brand of suburban misfit ennui with a winning, occasionally uneven blend of sweet and sour teen angst. It lacks the cringey earnestness of Napoleon Dynamite or Ghost World’s undercurrent of resigned melancholy, content to let its unconventional characters follow a fairly well-trod formula. Its two leads, deeply sheltered Patty (Tony-nominated Emily Skeggs) and vitriolic Simon (Kyle Gallner, sporting a squirrely undercut-mullet combo), form an unlikely bond predicated on a shared love for punk music. Patty is implied to have some sort of unspecified developmental disability, or to at least fall somewhere on the spectrum; at age twenty, she carries herself with the demeanor, and colorful, baggy wardrobe, of a pouty tween. Meanwhile, Simon is all too willing to hurl insults and pick fights, mostly with middle-age couples who have the misfortune to sit near him in restaurants.
To his credit, Rehmeier, who also wrote and edited the film, doesn’t let Patty fall into Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode, even as he upends expectations about crust punk Simon’s family background. When the two meet, she’s been unceremoniously fired from her job at a pet store and he’s wanted by the police for setting a house on fire in the first of many dinner scenes. Before long, she’s professing her biggest secret — sending love letters and x-rated polaroids to the ski-masked lead singer of her favorite punk band — and Simon has to decide whether to reveal himself as the anonymous John Q. Public. It’s both adorable and contrived, like something dreamed up by a teenage girl in math class, and Gellner nails Simon’s expression of horror and disgust when it dawns on him that this awkward, ungainly dope is his biggest fan.
Skeggs and Gellner carry the film with a relentlessly flickering energy, buoyed by John Swihart’s thumping, jittery score, which has the same comedic timing as the script. Every nuclear family we encounter — no divorces here — reads like a hideous caricature of suburban America, Norman Rockwell splattered with Pollock. Against this backdrop, Patty’s syrupy naiveté manages to soften Simon’s snarl, while his caustic charisma emboldens Patty to finally stand up for herself against a litany of generic bullies. There’s nothing groundbreaking at work here, but just like the impromptu song Patty and Simon record together, Dinner in America proves to be simple, goofy, and unexpectedly sweet.