' ' Cinema Romantico: Dinner in America

Monday, October 24, 2022

Dinner in America

Adam Carter Rehmeier’s “Dinner in America” begins with several aesthetically combative sequences designed to be almost as off-putting as the main character itself, a pyro punk rocker named Simon (Kyle Gallner), who winds up on the lam after setting a house with an immaculate bay window on fire before happening upon junior college dropout Patty (Emily Skeggs) and taking shelter in her family home. It’s a funny idea in and of itself, a radical non-conformist forced to hide out in suburbia, like if The Boy in the Police Station (Charlie Sheen) in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” had ditched the precinct and hidden out with Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey). And even if Simon encourages her to open up and express herself in song, that song proves a come-on to him only in so much as it proves a kiss off to everything, epitomizing how “Dinner in America” never betrays its punk ideology. 

The timeframe is nebulous, references like Riot Grrrl culture suggesting the 90s even as it also feels very much left over from the 80s, evinced in the bit part casting of Lea Thompson as an alcoholic housewife, cosmically intimating Lorraine McFly if she had never been saved by her son going back in time. If there is plenty of hyper-editing to match the soundtrack’s frequent aggression and Simon’s overall surliness, Carter still frequently tempers the camera, zooming out in shots of bus stops and a weedy lot in the shadow of a single office tower that put into striking perspective the notion of these lands of the dead (eyed) wasting so much space. The title, meanwhile, hints at the movie’s supper-eating motif, the characters sitting down several times for dysfunctional family dinners. This notion of the kitchen table as a symbol of togetherness has been satirized and picked apart frequently over the years, and nothing in “Dinner in America” is quite as raucous as Will Ferrell shouting about his Dodge Stratus all those years ago. Still, in their own way these sequences sort of a throw a figurative table through the kitchen table metaphor, evoking families not as small communities but an unlikely collection of individuals, atoms and molecules colliding in whole new ways.

The movie’s heart, though, is in the relationship between Simon and Patty. One early moment in which he asks her to remove her glasses teases “Pygmalion,” but ultimately, she never ditches the glasses just as rather than changing who she is she unearths who she was all along. Here, Skeggs’s performance harmonizes note perfectly with Carter Rehmeier’s writing, to create a wonderfully weird character, socially awkward, socially stunted, not so much looking to Simon for approval in peppering with him questions as someone emotionally shut in too long, underlined in the actor’s constant squint, someone struggling to see the world. Simon, of course, is her conduit, but he is also not merely an ideal, his backstory gradually unspooled so as to put his commitment to integrity and DIY ethos under the microscope. Movies like this are often about getting out of the place you’re stuck, but there is something more profound, if bleak, about how no one gets out in “Dinner in America.” The change, it comes from within, though even that subverts the cliché, Patty’s concluding scream going into the void even as it sets her free. 

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