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Dinner in America
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by Jay Seaver

"Likely more appetizing for some than others."
2 stars

SCREENED VIA FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020: Sometimes there's a thin line between characters who are difficult and abrasive but interesting and characters you just plain hate. Sometimes it's not necessarily thin, but it just seems to take forever to reach the point where you can see it and maybe get something out of it. "Dinner in America" is in the second category, but by the time I realized that I found it hard to give it the proper credit. It spends so much time being nasty and charmless that it is hard to take its better impulses seriously.

We first meet Simon (Kyle Gallner) puking as he takes part in a drug study which is going about as well for Beth (Hannah Marks). They're booted out, and she invites him over to her place for Sunday dinner, which goes about as well, with him burning some bridges and other items on the way out. Elsewhere in Detroit, mousy 20-year-old Patty (Emily Skeggs) is being bullied on the bus and at work, with her parents saying she can't go to a concert on Friday night. She spots Simon as he's dealing some drugs and running from the cops, and he decides to hide out at her place for a while, although he's got a whole list of things he's got to do while she's looking for a new job.

Simon is a miserable little jackass, and while writer/director Adam Rehmeier will occasionally toss in something to make him seem a bit more sympathetic, but almost every bit of it is just targeting his violence at people the audience disapproves of more, and even his eventual opening up to Patty is selfish, like he can't see her having value until it's revealed that she has talent directly related to his own interests. It could be a moment of growth, but he's not given much of a chance to show he's a better person in general. He's the sort of petulant punk-rocker who's got nothing but anger and violence most of the time, and while it's energetic and entertaining at moments, it can wear on a viewer.

Kyle Gallner is kind of fun to watch in the role, at least; he spends almost the entire movie not quite bug-eyed but with that sort of intensity either on display or obviously just under the surface, always ready to pull out an arch variation that indicates he's got a brain behind the bile, and even on occasion showing a bit of humanity. It's a broad performance but not a bad one. Emily Skeggs doesn't quite gel with him as Patty, but it may be more about Rehmeier not having the same handle on her than he does on Simon than any shortcoming of Skeggs's; she pulls off the necessary blank and uncomprehending stare that comes from a too-sheltered upbringing without looking stupid, which is no mean feat, while also occasionally bringing out frustration that there's more in her head than her folks have prepared her for

One almost wonders at times if the script started with Patty in high school only to be revised older, but not everything made it all the way, and it wouldn't really be surprising; it's a script full of moments and characters who are strong and well-crafted for single scenes or sequences but which don't stretch that much further. Sometimes that works out pretty well - the quick hits of black comedy work, and it occasionally gives a "guest star" like Lea Thompson or Hannah Marks the chance to be memorable without holding back. That the film seldom stops to explain people's backgrounds can be a bit of a double-edged sword; it doesn't slow things down artificially but can sometimes make things seem random, or has Rehmeier losing track of the line between the bits that seem real and the ones which are meant to be heightened.

Rehmeier brings enough scrappy energy to the movie that it's entirely possible I'm judging it harshly for doing a bunch of things that I generally don't care for - I've got spectacularly little patience for movies where someone being a talented musician is meant to excuse his being a turd as a person and baseline assumptions that families are all stuck with each other and kind of miserable about it, and this one has a lot of both. It's designed to rub me the wrong way, but even given that, it's enough of a battle between nastily clever and boringly nasty that those things can easily push a viewer one way or the other

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originally posted: 08/23/20 03:18:53
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Directed by
  Adam Rehmeier

Written by
  Adam Rehmeier

  Emily Skeggs
  Kyle Gallner
  Lea Thompson
  Pat Healy

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