Punk rock, as messy and elusive as it is to define, is a tricky spirit to capture in a film. The best examples feel almost incidental in their embodiment of the punk ethos. Repo Man, Smithereens and the 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization are often sloppily made and always proudly amoral; That aimlessness captures the apathy that spawned the punk subculture in the first place.
So when a movie like Dinner in America — which contains dialogue such as, “You are punk as fuck” — makes such a deliberate effort to be punk rawk, your gut reaction might be to kick writer-director Adam Rehmeier in the shins. But after an abrasive first act, Dinner in America somehow emerges as something far sweeter and compelling than it initially lets on. What starts as an uneven satire of suburban malaise morphs into an earnest outsider rom-com and is all the better for it.
The movie’s opening moments go to extreme lengths to show viewers just how much of a punk iconoclast Simon (Kyle Gallner) is. His shaved head, patched-up Army fatigue jacket and perpetually dangling cigarette certainly convey the right image of a crusty degenerate, and that’s only confirmed after an absurd opening scene when he causes pandemonium at a family dinner he’s invited to by happenstance. While being chased out by a furious husband for making out with his wife, Simon stops him dead in his tracks by lighting a fiery blaze in the front lawn. This, among several drug-related offenses, makes Simon a wanted man.
Simon is only one of the many exaggerated caricatures that populate this world, though he’s easily the most memorable. Gallner, who up until this point has been largely a supporting player, is unrecognizable, and his gravelly snarl saves the edgy punk-rawk dialogue from unintentionally comic effect. His expressions alternate between irritated disgust or wry cynicism, and whether he’s cussing out a random passerby or getting even with some preppy high school bros by means of a rotting cat carcass (don’t ask), Gallner totally makes Simon work. He may be a nihilistic cartoon character, but at least he’s a fun one.
Simon’s outlaw status eventually leads him to cross paths and take shelter in the family home of Patty (Emily Skeggs), who’s as much a social pariah as Simon is in her own way. It’s no fault of Skeggs’ performance — which is, in fact, what saves her character from going into outright offensive territory — but this is where Dinner in America gets a bit thorny. The movie specifically states that Patty is 20 years old, and it seems as if the script wants us to believe she’s just repressed by her overprotective parents (who won’t allow her to go to rock concerts or use kitchen appliances while she’s home alone). But Patty is also explicitly childlike in her demeanor. She gets into infantile arguments with her brother, bounce-dances around her room like a girl at a slumber party and mails love poems to her rockstar crush in envelopes decorated with glitter and heart stickers.
Thus, when a romance begins to blossom between her and Simon, it has a sickly, sinister edge that the movie clearly doesn’t intend. Like so many other aspects of Dinner in America, this romance could have sunk the whole ship if it wasn’t for a thrilling final act that adds much-needed depth to both characters. Once her character comes out of her shell, Skeggs’ performance is a delight, and during a triumphant musical sequence, when she looks at Simon and sings, “Fuck the rest of ’em. Fuck ’em all. Fuck ’em all but us,” you might be surprised to find yourself nodding in agreement.