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Dinner in America (2020) – Review by Jonny Numb

September 24, 2022


By Jonny Numb – Make sure to listen to the Feel Good series that he’s recorded with us. The episodes include Elle, Only God Forgives, Dragged Across Concrete, Super Dark Times, Bad Lieutenant, and more!

Grade – (A- per the MFF criteria)

When we’re young, we do stupid stuff. We bob up and down in an ocean of peer pressure and raise our hands for a life preserver of belonging. We don’t wanna be conformists (because conformists are squares), but we strive for acceptance all the same. There’s a lot we don’t understand when we’re muddling through forced public education and dodging bullish jock in gym class. 

I remember the time I pinched a beer from a friend’s father’s mini-fridge and promptly threw up from drinking it too fast. The time I pinched myself with a nail clipper, leaving a permanent scar on my left hand. Or the time, post-high school, when a group of friends decided to pass around a taser and administer shocks, just to see what it felt like.

Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner in America hypothesizes that we get no closer to understanding the stupidity of the actions that govern our youth when we’re adults. And when the youth inevitably become adults – with their mortgages and notions of propriety and “family time” – it turns out they’re just as clueless (if not more so). Some philosophers have posited that with age comes wisdom…but that seems like an overly optimistic assessment. 

And besides…in the grand cosmic joke of human existence, what is the point of wisdom if we’re too old and physiologically deteriorated to apply it to our lives? That’s the rub.

There are shades of SLC Punk in Dinner in America, with its sensibility toward coming of age as a jaded outcast in a desolate and deadly dull hellscape. That said, an existential darkness also worms its way into the acerbic proceedings. There’s a bit of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, too – a virulent strain of diseased “Americana” that the current gatekeepers of “propriety” have tried so hard to normalize.

Dinner in America is similarly caustic, preoccupied with the abrasion of family life in modern America, with parents who range from the permissive to the grossly intolerant. In an early moment that sets the tone for what’s to come, a sexually repressed housewife (Lea Thompson) pounces on the sneering bad-boy charm of Simon (Kyle Gallner), an arsonist and punk rocker on the lam from the cops. In this vision of suburbia, the slightest hint of excitement or danger is met with eager carnal desire.

While on the run, Simon encounters Patty (Emily Skeggs), an oblivious yet empathetic community-college dropout. He ingratiates himself into her family and, through an awkward dinner where he pretends to be a missionary from Tanzania, finds a place to hole up while the heat dies down. Crusty yet suave, callous but caring, Simon makes for an unlikely foil to Patty, whose naivete renders her a paragon of purity.

And, through the layers of his tough, no-f**ks-given persona, Simon is a kindred spirit, albeit on the opposite end of the social spectrum. He flings off-the-cuff opinions at anyone within earshot, indifferent to his targets’ reactions (he’s a bit like David Thewlis’ character in Naked). The difference between him and an unlikable-for-unlikable’s sake indie-film protagonist is the kernels of often disagreeable truth within his observations that glisten like corn in sh*t.

During a meeting with his bandmates, Simon gets into a heated argument about a gig with a popular band. The bandmates see it as an opportunity to make some money to retrieve their masters from a label head and get some exposure in the process. Simon sees it as a sellout move, antithetical to his punk ethos. The idealistic 20-year old in me cheered his fortitude, while the grounded 41-year old couldn’t help but wonder if his more Melvin bandmates had a point. 

Simons and Pattys are standard-issue characters in more straightforward teen comedies – the rebel and the outcast who are both outcasts – but seldom do they seem as keyed-in to the withering dream of suburbia in the age of COVID (even though the film’s Sundance premiere predated the pandemic). 

Rehmeier is an unconventional filmmaker – his previous efforts explored themes from dehumanization (The Bunny Game) to unsettling religious fervor (Jonas). For as colorful and contemporary as Dinner in America feels, its sense of exaggeration in the sterile living rooms and kitchens of expensive modern homes carries the feeling of Gen-X parents trying their damnedest to reconcile their moral compass against a world that’s evolved far past their understanding.

In that regard, Patty’s shell-shocked, uptight dad (Pat Healy) and mom (Mary Lynn Rajskub) are just as lost in the world as Simon and Patty, unaware that adult life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. That Rehmeier makes us understand different generational perspectives – not to mention dealing with adoption in a way that gives a supporting character a neat arc – speaks to the thoughtfulness of Dinner in America overall. 

Such paradoxes permeate the film: looking through a lens of who you were and who you are, and the growth gap between the two. I could easily see this becoming a cult favorite in the vein of Ghost World, where bits and pieces of ourselves manifest in different characters as time moves on. One of the great things about cinema is how the profundity of truly great movies manifests in different ways over the course of decades. Dinner in America is incendiary and timeless, an indicator of where we’ve been and where we might be going.

Bio: Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) is a contributor at Crash Palace Productions and co-host of The Last Knock horror podcast. His writing also occasionally appears at The Screening Space. And, despite his skepticism toward the merits of Deep Blue Sea, has somehow appeared on numerous episodes of the MFF podcast. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.

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