Dinner in America. 2020.
Directed & Written by Adam Rehmeier.
Starring Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Brian Andrus, Shelby Alayne Antel, Nevaeh Ashanti, Sophie Bolen, Nick Chinlund, Kristin Condon, Derek Brian Demkowicz, & Lena Drake.
Atlas Industries / Bee-Hive Productions / Burn Later Productions
Not Rated / 106 minutes
Comedy / Drama
The following essay contains slight SPOILERS!
The only thing I’d seen by Adam Rehmeier before was 2011’s The Bunny Game and I was admittedly not a fan whatsoever. Rehmeier’s done other films between 2011 and now. His latest feature is so far from his first, and in more than just style. Dinner in America is a funny, honest depiction of the black sheep who don’t fit into society, and how/where they find comfort despite social isolation.
Simon (Kyle Gallner) is a lost young punk rocker who drifts from one crash pad to another, occasionally committing crimes. When this lifestyle starts catching up with him he winds up finding shelter with a young woman named Patty (Emily Skeggs), a goofy twenty-year-old living at home with her parents trying to figure out her life.
What Patty doesn’t realise is that Simon’s actually John Q, the punk rock frontman she’s desperately in love with and sends letter to weekly. Their time together goes from mild to wild, and they each learn something important from the other after all’s said and done.
Dinner in America takes a look at imperfect people rejected by a capitalist U.S. society that values only those who fit a perfect mould. Patty and Simon come from different places, figuratively and literally. Simon particularly starts the film thinking he can figure people out just by looking at them, like we wear our ideologies on our sleeves, in our clothes and hairstyles and interests. But people aren’t a monolith, neither is punk rock. Punk isn’t about what you wear, it’s not about where you come from, it’s the emotion, the beliefs, and the spirit of punk that matters—Patty and Simon teach this to one another in their own ways.
Right from the beginning, Rehmeier places the economy, and American society overall, in his cross hairs. In the opening scene we see Simon and a girl named Beth getting paid to be guinea pigs for a clinical drug trial. He later refers to the as the “vampires at the lab,” economic bloodsuckers draining the working class. In another scene, Simon makes a good point, apart from his use of the word cunt towards the bank teller, when he comments that banks effectively commit “psychological warfare” against people over the most foolish, bureaucratic things and the most insignificant amounts of money; a comedic moment, yet full of truth.
The best example of an economic critique in the film collides with individual identity. Patty’s let go from her job “until the economy gets back on its feet” and given the excuse that minimum wage is going up. Her losing the job at the pet store is just due to a business owner wanting a more conventional employee than Patty, who’s treated like a child because she doesn’t act how society believes an adult should act.
The jocks who sexually harass Patty, and later feel Simon’s wrath, are more than just comic relief. They’re symbols of the ideal white American citizens who look and act how U.S. society expects them to, conforming to the system in every way necessary to help them maintain bourgeois values; even if they’re absolute pieces of shit who treat anyone that doesn’t look just like them differently. They’re also the types who eventually grow up into guys like Beth’s father in the opening sequence—paying attention to football on TV instead of spending proper time at the table with family during Thanksgiving, drinking beer and yelling the n-word at football players.
“You are punk as fuck”
Through their adventures, Patty and Simon teach other what they need most: for her, it’s to step outside conformity and to bend the rules when necessary because the system is rigged against those of us who don’t conform to what an adult is meant to be in the eyes of a capitalist society; for him, it’s learning how to trust people again, to find family and community in others when his family/community have rejected him for not fitting the bourgeois mould into which he was born. Simon actually helps Patty’s whole family to break free of their suburban existences and a repressive state of silence.
Simon’s John Q punk rock frontman persona is an interesting element to Rehmeier’s screenplay. John Q. Public is the generic reference to a regular citizen, the ‘common person.’ Here, it’s the everyday person beaten down by the system. In a sense, Simon’s saying anybody could be John Q punk rocker because he’s a fabricated identity meant to reflect the forgotten, the lost, the rejected—of whom there are many in America.
The most infectious aspect of Dinner in America is its punk rock energy, best encompassed by Patty’s transformation from a timid young woman to a much more confident, rebellious one by the end. There’s a great dual image of Patty in her room rocking out v. Patty at the show later rocking out. When Patty’s isolated in her room, she’s in the only place where she can seemingly be herself without judgement from others, people expecting her to be a certain type of person. Patty at the show feels a connection with Simon, but she’s also able to be herself in an environment that’s encouraging rather than judgemental and based on capitalist values. However, she never quite lets go of who she was before, perfectly represented by the way she reflects her family’s dinner table language in the final scene while dealing with a couple young women harassing her.
There’s a lot of heart and sweetness alongside the punk rock throughout Dinner in America. Simon’s hilarious “Fuck China Hut, fuck America” statement later transforms into a less antisocial statement, becoming Patty’s “Fuck ‘em all but us” line in their song. Although they each experience a transformation, the most important part feels like Simon learning that being a punk rock frontman doesn’t require him to act a certain way, that he doesn’t have to shun affection and love to write rebellious music, and Patty helps him understand. If Gallner and Skeggs hadn’t played these parts I’d find it hard to imagine anybody else in their roles. They’re endearing, funny, and weird, too. They make their characters feel so real, like so many of the different people I’ve met over the years who love punk.
Rehmeier touches on things like the economy and class divide, some of the reasons punk rock stays alive throughout the decades, and a large part of why it was originally born. His achievement is tearing down those juvenile walls of believing punk is about an aesthetic, rather than a mindset, a set of beliefs, an attitude. I think that, at its core, Dinner in America is about not making assumptions regarding others, and not allowing a first impression to pull us in either direction, love or hate. Because people are complex, they’re messy, they’re weird, and they’re beautiful.