Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kyle Gallner, Emily Skeggs, Griffin Gluck, Pat Healy, Mary Rajskub, David Yow, Hannah Marks, Nick Chinlund, Lea Thompson
Written by: Adam Carter Rehmeier
Directed by: Adam Carter Rehmeier
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 106
Date: 05/27/2022

Dinner in America (2022)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Music Boyfriend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

On paper, this edgy, indie rom-com about misfits and outsiders has been done before, but in practice, the humane performances — and especially a transfixing musical moment — make it something special.

Outcast Simon (Kyle Gallner) checks out of an experimental drug test, having been shorted the money he was promised. He accompanies fellow test subject Beth (Hannah Marks) to her home for dinner, and, before too long, ends up making out with Beth's mom (Lea Thompson), and setting their house on fire. He goes on the run, and a meek, naïve pet shop clerk, Patty (Emily Skeggs), helps him evade the cops.

Patty is a fan of the punk rock band Psyops, of which Simon is secretly the anonymous lead singer (he wears a ski mask on stage). She has written many letters to her "music boyfriend," which Simon carries in his bag. They begin spending time together, Simon helping her collect her last paycheck after losing her job, and helping her stand up to bullies. Then he helps her record a song, using her letters as lyrics, and everything changes. But Simon must still reckon with his criminal past.

From the outset — the first shot of Dinner in America is a drug-sick, drooling Simon, watery eyes glaring at the camera — the characters keep us off-balance. Simon's every interaction is laced with rage, cruelty, and cynicism, but occasionally he lets in flickers of caring. Meanwhile, Patty is even more of a cipher, enduring excruciating family dinners, perhaps blissfully unaware of just what's so excruciating about them, before heading to her room to blast some punk rock.

In truth, it's not always easy to like these outcasts, or to figure out what makes them tick. But as Dinner in America goes on through its weird, funny episodes, that's precisely what makes them so interesting. Like Harold & Maude and many other movies, they eventually form an undeniable bond, here crystallized when they record their song.

Simon lays down the drums, guitar, and bass, and then presses "record" while Patty shyly begins to sing a song called "Watermelon." What emerges is one of those resplendent movie moments that makes you want to hold your breath until it's over, for fear of breaking the spell. Something beautiful emerges right before our eyes. It registers on Simon's face; he drops all his defenses. He's been emotionally touched. And so have we.

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