Exactly how did Dinner in America go so wrong? It can’t help but warrant a comparison to Babyteeth, with its sheltered life growing into a punk rock youth rebellion, and messy family dynamics. Where Babyteeth makes tenderness out of its mess, focusing on a desperation for connection and a lust for life, Dinner in America drags, and its lust for life feels like nothing more than forced rebellion, and adult children in a forced love story that fails on its potential show the illusion of star power to full effect.
The central bond takes place between Patty (Emily Skeggs), who is a superfan of local punk quartet Psyops, led by masked singer John Q. Public, the alter ego of love interest Simon, played by Kyle Gallner in a showy turn of bravado. It’s an improvement from the admittedly quite awful first third, but Simon stays one of the most unlikeable characters of the year. The two leads are at their best when making music together, and Patty’s idolization falls down, as does his fear of the obsessive fan base he has built.
Out of anything, it seems like an ode to male freedom, and a celebration of the ego with unabashed volume. Simon comes crashing in, literally burning his way through the yard as he leaps out a window on a swift cop-pursued exit from an awkward family dinner. He falls right into the eyeline of Patty, and the two hit it off, with him lying to pose as the son of missionaries for the sake of her parents approval. Where Patty is sweet, and fascinated by the new closeness with the man she looked up to, Simon is ride, cruel, and causes the opposites attract trope to sour quickly. Early reviews claim that he seems charmingly rude enough that it makes the homophobic slurs he rattles off seem beneath him, and not worth faulting him, and it puts into question how much we let these cinematic manbabies get away with. Outside his bond with Patty, he is a male lead with almost no likeability, and by the fifth slur it’s hard to understand what we should be rooting for.
The weird thing is how Dinner in America can’t decide what stage of life its female lead operates in. She falls for the punk-rocker she idolizes, has sex with him onscreen, and we have an overlong masturbation sequence, despite her still asking to leave the house each time. There is an emphasis on her most childlike mannerisms, as well as restrictions of life that come when underage, and her character often feels like she is written as a young teen, and only aged up in the script at the last moment to avoid direct controversy. Even discounting Emily Skeggs’ youthful look, the twenty year old lead character never looks or is treated as any older than fourteen besides by her love interest, and even then it’s such an odd dynamic it can’t help but feel like the declaration of her age was shoehorned in at the final moment. Patty is treated as a misfit by those around her, and likely isn’t neurotypical, but instead of any acknowledgement or respect towards this she is repeatedly infantilized instead.
When early Sundance reviews dropped praising the film for its sweetness, it was hard to believe the film came from the same man who directed 2011’s The Bunny Game. The scream heavy extreme brutalization horror doesn’t seem as alien watching this follow-up, which is just as shrill. There’s little nuance, little sweetness outside of Patty’s character, just brash excitement and confidence on Simon’s end of things that’s grating to watch. We get little respite in the scenes where Patty is able to join in on the music, and her part is a nice show learning the truth about your idols, and coming into yourself, but the sweet coming of age story there doesn’t do enough to go against the film’s bitter, cranky heart. Dinner in America seems set on the idea of eternal youth, but in this case it seems that eternal youth is the avoidance of consequences for men, and the restriction of naivety for women. A misanthropic mess masquerading as a heartfelt rom-com, Adam Rehmeier’s sophomore feature feels like a middle finger to the typical Sundance indie, and to all watching hoping for something that lives up to Skeggs’ character’s heart.