When punk values and aesthetics are portrayed in the movies and TV, they often get sanded down from the real thing. This happened with Pistol, the terrible FX miniseries about the Sex Pistols, in which it was clear that writer Craig Pearce and director Danny Boyle didn’t have their heart in it and would rather be making a miniseries about David Bowie.
The new film Dinner in America doesn't have that problem. It's about the Midwest punk sensibility in the early-1990s. It shows a version of punk that's angry, violent, and not above the use of racial and gay slurs, with a side of occasional pyromania. The film’s honest about what punk was at the time. The film is exhilarating, very funny, full of surprises, features standout music, and has heart. It's going to be misunderstood, and the people who misunderstand it are going to be wrong.
Directed by Adam Carter Rehmeier, Dinner in America stars Veronica Mars veteran Kyle Gallner as Simon, a punk frontman and all-around chaos agent. It's the sort of music that doesn't pay especially well, which is why he's introduced while taking part in a clinical drug trial for money. Meeting a girl at that trial leads him to the Thanksgiving dinner of the girl's family, where he seduces her mom (Lea Thompson!), before burning down her lawn. The film includes the period-specific detail that he loves to burn stuff for fun, just like Beavis and Butt-head were doing on MTV around the same time. This is the first of three family dinner scenes, all of which end catastrophically, and we’re meant to think it’s par for the course for a guy like Simon.
The other lead is Patty (Emily Skeggs), a college dropout who lives with her parents and has the habit of mailing nude Polaroids to the masked singer of her favorite punk band who, unknown to her, is Simon. The two join forces and engage in a campaign of chaos and revenge against their enemies, with Simon at odds with his bandmates over whether to play a gig opening for a band he doesn't respect. Movies about the 1990s, both made at the time and since, have also explored the "selling out" question that was everywhere in the culture of the time, but never quite like this.
Dinner in America moves fast through its 108-minute running time. It’s more concerned with character than plot, and I like that it's not trying to make any kind of red state/blue state statement, or tell us that a character is "punk" when he isn't at all. Age Gap cops beware: Simon’s coded as an adult, and Patty as a high school student, up to and including the living with her parents and the track athletes and mean girls who bully her on the bus. But in fact, Gallner is 35 and Skeggs is 32, and their chemistry is crackling.
Dinner in America was shot in 2018, debuted on what was left of the festival circuit in 2020, had a brief theatrical release this spring and landed on Hulu in mid-September. It’s one of those smaller films that’s destined for cult status.