Fantasia Fest: Dinner in America is a mosh-pit of charm
The indie rom-com gets off to a rough start, but ultimately aims to please.
Quirk for the sake of quirk can try anyone’s patience. Punk for the sake of seeming tough and edgy can do the same. Slam the two together and you’re bound to get chaotic results. The two elements clash in Dinner In America, but rather than being a mess, they make for a delightfully deranged film. Viewers willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with terrific performances, and one hell of a catchy original song.
Somewhere in the Midwest, in an unspecified decade, two lost souls are just trying to keep their heads up. For Simon (Kyle Gallner), it’s a literal struggle, scrounging up cash by volunteering for a pharmaceutical trial that ends in fire and with Simon on the lam. Meanwhile, Patty (Emily Skeggs) is stuck in a state of arrested development. A 20-year-old junior college dropout who lives with her parents, she’s desperately in search of a purpose. Her only outlet is listening to punk music alone in her room. One day these two cross paths, kicking off a series of events involving fire, drugs, Hawaiian sandwiches and a litany of felonies.
The film is tonally aggressive for the first 30 minutes, like it’s daring viewers to turn it off. Writer-director Adam Rehneier’s early scenes cause whiplash, with bright color palettes and wide shots that clash with jarring verbiage (there’s a sizable number of slurs used throughout) and raging testosterone. It feels like someone trying a little too hard to break into a scene, hitting discordant beats, demanding to be looked at before flipping you the bird and running off. Then, without any real warning or provocation, a switch gets flipped. Just as Dinner in America pushes your patience far enough, it finds a weirdly sweet groove, turning into one of the more unconventional rom-coms to come out in some time.
Tossing out a phrase like “sweet,” considering some of the moments that come later, might seem a stretch, but Dinner in America is sincere. That dogged loyalty to embracing sweetness saves the film, kicking everything to high gear and morphing it into something worth championing. That point wouldn’t be reached were it not for the two impeccable leads. Gallner and Skeggs are an unlikely pair, but their chemistry is undeniable. The more time spent with them, the better the story gets. From a grander perspective, you could argue they encourage the best in each other. They’re the glue that allows this rickety machine to not only function but thrive.
Patty’s journey is fantastic and hopeful, and Skeggs crafts a character who’s tough to peg, but easy to care for. Patty has some ailments or conditions that are never defined. Her parents (Pat Healy, Mary Lynn Rajskub) reference strobe lights, but nothing beyond that. Thankfully, Skeggs’ performance has so many layers that you cheer for every minor triumph she has along the way…even if she has to ask what it means a second later.
Gallner is perfect playing the kind of role that he’s normally relegated to, but here elevated from side character to lead. His intensity is infectious and attention-grabbing, without feeling too over-the-top. That gets smoothed over by his softer side the longer he’s saddled with Patty. This mix of rage and tenderness goes a long way to centering the tone of the film.
At the heart of all the hijinks and weird asides, Dinner In America is about how music is a cathartic outlet for those who feel pent up and misunderstood. There’s a lot of talk about what is and isn’t “punk” that blurs the lines between making fun of the notion and embracing it. It’s often said that something stops being punk the moment you say it is punk. Without decrying it as being so, the sublime scenes of Patty dancing to music may be some of the most authentic depictions of release, relating to that specific idiom.
Dinner In America is a film that’s hard to put into one review effectively. It opens pushing hard in your face, ready to dare you to turn it off because you “can’t handle it,” which a lot of people are likely to do. From there, it starts to become a solid love story with many rough edges. Every time you think it might get grating again, the movie wins some goodwill by being genuinely moving and funny. Much like the punk music it loves, the film plays by its own set of rules. Maybe that’s why it all works, even if you want to punch a wall when it ends.