Adam Rehmeier’s romantic comedy Dinner in America arrives at Fantasia 2020 with a decent amount of buzz after successfully premiering at Sundance in January. It also comes with some heavyweight backing with Ben Stiller as one of its producers. Be warned though, this is no indie-darling rom-com, but a snarling punk rock love story, not for the easily offended.
The fact gets signposted from the start as we are introduced to one of our leads, punk rock singer Simon (Kyle Gallner), as he suffers the side effects of a medical trial in which he is taking part for some extra cash. At the trial, he meets Beth (Hannah Marks, who also produces) who takes him back to her home for Sunday dinner with her family. There follows a hilariously awkward dinner (one of many), a misguided dalliance with Beth’s mother (a very game Lea Thompson), a food fight, and an act of pyromania; all in just the opening ten minutes.
Our other lead is Peggy (Emily Skeggs), a somewhat slow, heavily medicated loner patronised by her family, barely tolerated by her boss and bullied by the most psychopathically obnoxious jocks this side of The Toxic Avenger. The latter would probably seem cartoonishly jarring in your average film but fit oddly well here. Mainly because the film makes clear from the start it takes place in an off-kilter ‘Suburban Gothic’ landscape, slightly removed from the real world – of the kind familiar from the works of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) or Richard Bates Jr (Excision, Suburban Gothic).
Given the unconventional set-up, it is no surprise our meet-cute is equally so. Our characters collide in a back alley when Simon is on the run from the police and Peggy has just lost her job. However, for all the jagged edges they make for a pair who are easy to root for, and it is fascinating to watch them grow together throughout the film. Peggy in particular, played by Skeggs, shows there is way more too her than those around her believe.
As mentioned, this is not a film for the easily offended. It is foul-mouthed, outrageous, and frequently throws out racial, homophobic, and ableist slurs. Some of this feels like it is done for shock value (not necessarily surprising given the movie comes from the director of the notorious The Bunny Game). However, for the most part, it gets away with it, as crucially the film is rarely mean-spirited.
It helps that many of the worst offenders get their comeuppance, particularly those who brand Peggy the r-word. And in uproarious style in one particularly notable case. While Simon and Peggy may provide the heart of the movie, there also several cracking supporting turns, most notably from Pat Healy and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Peggy’s hilariously uptight parents.
The filmmaker’s clear love of punk rock also shines through as the glue that cements Simon and Peggy’s bond. The film also easily has the most authentic on-screen representation of punk since Green Room. Keen-eyed music fans will also spot a cameo from The Jesus Lizard frontman turned actor David Yow.
Where Dinner in America falls down a little is as a social satire, mostly because this sort of behind-the-white-picket-fence satire has been done a lot before, and it fails to add anything new. Furthermore, the satirical jabs at the inherent unfairness of the socio-economic make-up of America only cut skin-deep.
Not that that should put you off this frequently laugh-out-loud funny, in-your-face but ultimately warm-hearted punk rock ‘anti-romantic comedy’ gem which, in a fair world, should pick up a significant cult following.
Screened as part of Fantasia Festival