Nightstream 2020 ‘Dinner in America’ Review: Punk-Rocking Through Family Awkwardness

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Dinner in America (2020), a dark comedy from director-writer Adam Rehmeier, begins with punk singer Simon (Kyle Gallner) eating something as part of a drug trial. He is dressed in a bib and monitored by orderlies, and gross-out closeups of drooling mouths and vomit do not make the meal look too appealing. Pretty soon he is busting out of the joint and giving the world the finger with his rebellious swagger; this opening moment is never fully explained, but sets the tone for the anti-society comedy that is to come.

Filmed in Detroit, this story is set in a nondescript Midwestern suburbia full of misfits, and Simon seems determined to unleash his anarchic energy wherever he goes. At the drug trial, he meets Beth (Hannah Marks) and goes home with her for Sunday dinner, guzzling his drink and sneering at the family members who dare look at him. He gets kicked out after dancing flirtatiously with Beth’s mom Betty (Lea Thompson) and smashing the family’s bay window, and soon he is out on the road again.

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But it’s once he encounters Patty (Emily Skeggs), a loner who is brutally taunted by bullies, that chemistry really sparks between two misunderstood outcasts. Patty is a dedicated music fan, determined to see her favorite band live, flails around in her room in a manic dance to her favorite song “Dinner in America.”  Simon may be a little terrified of the intensity of her passion as she writes love letters to the band members every week, but soon enough he can’t help but find something charming about all of it.

This is a story about people who do not care what others think, and are not afraid to be loud and proud about it. Jump cuts and push-ins are timed to the beat of the music as these two weirdos go on a jaunt about town, their chemistry building all the while. Simon toys with Patty in a flirtatious manner and defends her from the tracksuit-clad bullies on the bus, and they run around everywhere from fast food restaurants to pet stores to carnival arcades in a freewheeling and frenetic joyride. 

Gallner is magnetic onscreen in his smashing lead performance, and Skeggs, perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated performance in the musical Fun Home, is sweet and quirky but releases her punk edge when she begins to sing Patty’s original compositions. Those borderline-creepy love poems become “brilliant power pop songs,” and her hormone-fueled scribblings become endlessly catchy earworms that mesmerize us just like they do Simon.

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Rehmeier’s script has a dark comedy style that might be off-putting to some in the crudeness and cruelness of its language, but there is no shortage of family dysfunction for viewers to relate to or be grateful they lack. Patty’s family dinner is filled with arguments between her parents Connie (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and Norman (Pat Healy) and her younger brother Kevin (Griffin Gluck), and the only way she can get a word in is to shriek wildly. When black sheep Simon returns home, there is a hilarious sequence as his uptight family acts like they’ve just seen a ghost — he’s not supposed to have a key, but still he gets in, and knows just how to unlock their reserved facades as they let loose plenty of screaming, too.

While some of the bullies (and employers and parents) can seem cartoonishly cruel, this coming-of-rage story allows its protagonists to shine in all their twitchy raucous energy — if they’re living in a cartoon world, Simon and Patty burst off the page. Building up to a climactic punk rock show, Dinner in America gets in your face, in your head, and under your skin with its tunes and thunderous characters, serving up a feast for the senses in a delicious helping of anarchic energy.

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