There are two reasons behind the title of writer/director Adam Rehmeier’s mannered rites-of-passage comedy Dinner In America. The first is that the film is structured around a series of dinners, all bickering and fractious, that showcase the fault lines of class, sex and ideology in the neglected suburbia of the United States. The second is that it is the name of an album and its title track, performed by the punk group PsyOps near the film’s end.
The path from family dinners to punk rock might at first seem indirect and obscure, but punk has always been an expression of youthful rebellion against the conservative values of the day, and here is used to capture all the insolence and anomie of two characters brought together by their dissatisfaction with the consumerist world around them – as well as by their love of punk.
When we first meet Simon (Kyle Gallner), he is woozy and drooling into his dinner plate at a facility where he has volunteered for pharmaceutical tests in exchange for cash. Simon is a disgruntled, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking drug dealer with a half-shaven head and a sideline in pyromania. On the lam from the police, he runs into Patty (Emily Skeggs), a recently laid off, vocabulary-impaired 20-year-old virgin erotically obsessed with the balaclava’d lead singer of PsyOps (to whom she regularly sends ‘love poems’ and polaroids of herself masturbating to his music).
Patty invites Simon back to the home where she lives with her blandly oppressive parents Norm and Connie (Pat Healy, Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her tightly wound younger brother Kevin (Griffin Gluck) for a fraught, Buffalo ’66-style family meal. During his stay, like the interlopers in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) and Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001), the smouldering, mercurial Simon will liberate this family from their various hang-ups, and give unhappy, medicated Patty the best two days of her life, even as these two fellow travellers come to find themselves in each other and against everyone else.
If this all sounds like a life-affirming romance – which ultimately it sort-of is – these wholesome aspects of Dinner In America are subverted by the sort of cringe-inducing comedy found in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite (2004), while the setting in Michigan’s derelict suburbs presents a picture of a broken, hopeless America. References to raves and riot grrrls and “a sea of cellphones” at gigs suggest a timezone at least in the Nineties, but these characters, with their ‘ghetto blasters’ and Qaaludes, and with their actions all orchestrated to John Swihart’s pulsing TR-808 score, seem stuck in an endless Eighties, bypassed by their own future.
“I’m looking for my purpose,” Patty tells Simon as she scans low-pay, dead-end jobs in the paper. In the end, Simon will help Patty find her purpose, as their neighbourhood adventures in revenge and recalcitrance merge into a state-side, post-teen version of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! (2013). For here punk empowers this newly formed duo to kick against the status quo and, at least for one night only, to burn the system down. As Patty finally gets her dream man and sings her own lyrics (“Fuck the rest of them. Fuck ’em all, fuck ’em all – but us”) in her own voice, Dinner In America proves to be a sweet-and-sour dish of belated coming of age. It truly is, as Simon would put it, tits.
strap: Adam Rehmeier’s oddball comedy of cringe lets two punk-loving misfits kick against the consumerist system in American suburbia
© Anton Bitel