' ' Cinema Romantico: Small Town Wisconsin

Monday, September 26, 2022

Small Town Wisconsin

“Small Town Wisconsin” is only the second feature film of director Niels Mueller, nearly 20 years after “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” in 2004. Those titles, the former deliberately plain and the latter as spectacular as the spectacularly boneheaded faux event it’s about, would at first glance appear to have nothing in common. Drill down just a couple feet, though, and they are quite similar, both the story of a dum-dum dad struggling to get it (to keep it) together. It’s just that in “Small Town Wisconsin” this manifests itself in alcoholism and anger and in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” this manifests itself as, well, obviously. Mueller’s first film is more impressive if mainly because it’s a much more difficult story to pull off, mining for and finding empathy where there would appear to be none at all, highlighted by Sean Penn’s fidgety, sweaty performance. But that is to take nothing away from David Sullivan’s lead performance in “Small Town Wisconsin,” loud in all the right ways, touching without becoming cloying, highlighting a movie that admittedly is better at observation than insight. 

The beginning scenes in which Wayne cracks a cold one and berates the Milwaukee Brewers while listening to them on the radio followed by oversleeping and showing up late to pick up his son Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman) from his ex-wife Deidra’s (Tanya Fischer) initially emit worries of something rote. Once Wayne and Tyler settle in for a weekend together, though, the movie finds its soul, brought home in the performance of Sullivan who does not play Wayne as a cruel or mean father, just a bad one, transforming the way his character calls his son “Champ” into a reflexive tic of heartbreaking desperation. And the moment where he inadvertently lets popcorn on the stove catch fire while he’s goofing around with Tyler becomes a manifestation of the knife’s edge on which the character and the performance rest, the best element of the whole movie, the way in which Sullivan effects the sensation of Wayne as a kind of human house of cards. When he takes his kid to a baseball game and implores him to hold his hand so they don’t get separated, you feel the anxiety. 

Wayne’s whiplash provides the moment-to-moment tension, but the overarching drama is Deidra seeking and winning custody of their son. Fischer does a good job letting us see Deidra’s alternating patience and frustration, and that Wayne’s frustration with her is entirely misplaced. She wants Wayne to tell Tyler he is moving with her to Arizona, and he plans to do it on a father and son camping trip that turns into a secret father and son foray to Milwaukee instead with his pal Chuck (Bill Heck, deftly eliding a potential caricature) in tow. That secrecy could have taken this plot twist in a different direction, but Mueller keeps the drama in a lower register. For one thing, as a Wisconsin native, he has a good handle on big city fear, evoked in their journey of simply finding a hotel, which also underlines how the support of a person like Chuck is what keeps Wayne afloat even as Wayne sleeps (literally) on that fact.

But if Tyler sees his father’s alcoholism clearly, matter-of-factly referencing it in a late scene where Sullivan’s reaction painfully suggests he thinks he’s been hiding it all along, “Small Town Wisconsin” does not. There’s a fascinating scene that could have been borrowed from the ferocious indie “Stinking Heaven.” in which Wayne sneaks into his dilapidated, vacant family home with Tyler and playacts his drunken father with his son playing himself. But Mueller never pulls on that thread when the vacationing trio in Milwaukee is forced to stay with Wayne’s sister Alicia (Kristen Johnston), opting for cozy domesticity that innately puts blinders on the lingering trauma, meaning that even if “Small Town Wisconsin” is smart enough to know one montage cannot remedy a drinking problem, this missing piece makes it feel incomplete. 

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