“Dinner in America,” directed by Adam Rehmeier, is a rom-com that just makes sense in 2020. It’s chaotic, it’s nihilistic, it’s cynical — but through it all, there is still hope and longing for love, even between two unconventional characters like Patty and Simon, played by Emily Skeggs and Kyle Gallner.
Patty is a misunderstood 20-year-old living at home with her family in suburban Michigan. Given her Napoleon Dynamite-like nature — characterized by her family and peers as “a bit slow” — she is victim to some pretty brutal bullying and harassment. But through it all, Patty finds solace in music — only in her case, imagine “solace” as a violently impassioned and hilariously awkward bedroom dance party soundtracked by her favorite punk rock band, Psyops.
Simon is a cigarette-smoking, drug-dealing, arson-loving jerk, who also happens to be a genius punk rocker and, under the stage name John Q, Psyops’ lead singer — a fact that remains hidden from Patty until late in the film. The two cross paths after Simon, who’s on the run after his latest escapade — which involved making moves on a married woman and torching her front yard — finds himself indebted to Patty after she offers him her home as a place to hide out from the cops.
And so the story goes — in pure punk-rock style, the two characters find themselves on a turbulent journey of self discovery. Simon, with the help of a dead cat and a polaroid camera, helps Patty exact revenge on her bullies and find her voice. Meanwhile, Patty challenges Simon to break down his walls — not through any overly mushy heart to heart, but by simply being her punk-rock self, proving human connection is truly the best treatment for trauma.
In a virtual discussion held after the film, Virginia Film Festival’s Ty Cooper interviewed Rehmeier, Skeggs and Gallner about the filmmaking process and how the two protagonists came to life. Both co-stars agreed — what is special about “Dinner in America” is its humanization of two unconventional characters.
“You don’t see a character like this represented as the love interest … but in reality, more people are going to relate to two people like this than they will to, you know, the superheroes who are ripped to bejesus,” said Gallner. “This isn’t some white knight riding in to save the day story. It’s these two misfits that never have to apologize for who they are … they are authentically themselves the whole time.”
Not only do these characters make for a relatable story, but their unequivocal sense of self fully embodies punk rock’s true essence — abandon the rules of the status quo, and just be yourself. The film sees Patty fully embrace this idea when she sings Simon her untitled power pop song, referred to by Skeggs as “the watermelon song.” Written for the film by Skeggs and Rehmeier, the song serves as the standout of the soundtrack, which is entirely composed of original tracks. Up to this point in the film, Simon’s role in Patty’s growing self confidence had been bordering on the edge of a male-savior trope. But as Patty sings the song she wrote, it is clear she is the one in control.
Gallner likens Patty and Simon’s relationship to a venn diagram — “There’s a really nice crossover between Simon and Patty. But those sides where they don’t meet in the middle, that’s what he needs from her, and that’s what she needs from him.” So, while the film celebrates finding acceptance in a kindred spirit, it is more so about finding and grasping onto one’s understanding of self.