Dinner in America makes an awful first impression. It is nihilistic to the degree that seems petty and cruel, and sprays that hatred in any direction it can. If not for the fact that I was reviewing it for Cinapse, I was very much inclined to turn it off within the first 30 minutes. It seems to mistake punk rock ethos for virulent hate.
That’s not always misguided hatred mind you; most of the items of the film’s anger are post-Reaganite stereotypes of suburban whiteness. But the depiction lacks any depth, and the way it tackles those things is mostly through increased vileness. At one point the main character runs down someone by their appearance, speculating that they are in fact homosexual by using the standard slurs. He’s the hero, but his crass nature makes it hard to sympathize.
Luckily the film pulls off a bit of a magic trick, mostly thanks to the chemistry between its two leads. Once it settles into the story it actually wants to tell instead of a broad place setting of letting you know its very broad social perspective, that crassness is evened out with something resembling sweetness. I don’t know if I love or even especially like Dinner in America, but I was prepared to hate it after its first hour.
The hero of the story Simon, played by Kyle Gallner, is a singer in a local punk rock band and drug dealer who leeches off anyone he can. The opening string of scenes show Simon meeting a similarly desperate soul as part of pharmaceutical trial clinic, going to her home, taunting their horrifically portrayed family, making out with her mom (played by a criminally underused Lea Thompson in a throw away role) and then running away after setting their front lawn on fire. This transitions into Simon trying to evade the police, which makes him run into the second lead Patty, played by Emily Skeggs.
The rest of the film is something of a romantic comedy depicting Patty, who is depicted as potentially having intellectual disabilities, and Simon falling in love and generally enjoying each other’s shared oddities. They conquer bullies, confront their dead-end home lives and generally find something resembling happiness with each other. It is this connection that saves the film, the restorative nature of finding someone else to care about in a world that you find increasingly dissatisfied.
There are other plot threads throughout; Simon’s band, Psyops, is trying to grow to the next level while he refuses to become a “sell-out”, Patty searches for a job after getting fired from her job cleaning up feces at a pet store. But the core of the movie is exploring the relationship between these two lost souls, and how in finding each other they escape the fatal gravity of the suburban life.
Skeggs and Gallner deserve a lot of credit in this regard. Gallner in particular portrays someone who has been eaten up by aimless hatred for so long that he has lost himself in it long ago. To see him find some means to care for someone else, and how it softens him around the edges, causing him to transition from a parasite to a provider, is a remarkable turn for an actor. And Skeggs effortlessly captures the energy of someone desperate to escape their mundane life, losing themselves into punk rock and promises of a bigger world. Patty sees Simon as an escape into a more exciting life; Simon sees Patty as someone who can keep him away from his more self-destructive tendencies, something worth fighting for rather than just against.
The depiction of crusty suburban America here is still often overbearing and hostile while not being especially insightful, but once the movie squarely focuses on human beings it decides to give actual depth and pathos, it works, even if it can’t quite overcome the initial sourness. But it is relieved from being a truly bitter pill to swallow, and becomes a more complex mix of sympathy, nihilism and general unease.