2020 Milwaukee Film Festival: “SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN”
One of the the things that makes the Milwaukee Film Festival, the MILWAUKEE Film Festival is the Cream City Cinema program featuring films with a significant Milwaukee connection. And SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN definitely qualifies.
The plot is simply that Wayne (David Sullivan) is a small town screwup that has finally screwed up enough that he’s lost joint custody of his son Tyler to his ex-wife Diedra (Tanya Fischer) who is planning a move to Phoenix. But, before the move, Wayne plans on taking his son Tyler to the big city of Milwaukee, with his buddy Chuck (Bill Heck) chaperoning for one magical weekend to soften the blow and make Tyler remember him always. Things don’t quite go to plan.
There’s a lot to like about SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN, but it stumbles early with Wayne as a character. Not that long ago, Wayne would be seen as a salt of the Earth, amusing drunk, that’s never quite grown up. But, today, it’s hard to see him as anything other than a semi-dangerous alcoholic with a temper problem. You can have all the charisma in the world, and David Sullivan has a lot of charisma, but he’s fighting an uphill battle for sympathy and empathy. Things are Wayne’s fault and losing custody is fair, which the film doesn’t really hide, but trying to paint Diedra as un-empathetic and having her get uppity about there being no hope for life in a small Wisconsin town is a bridge too far and made me question the story early on. It’s not until the road trip starts and Chuck and Wayne’s sister Alicia (Kristen Johnston) step in and talk some sense into Wayne that I felt the movie found its footing.
It’s the latter half of the film, despite the slightly exaggerated accents, that I found genuinely thoughtful and engaging. Wayne hits rock bottom in many ways, but confronts it as an adult for the most part. And it’s perhaps for the first time in his life. Things still go wrong, and there’s no magic fix, but there are silver linings in the dark clouds. And actual hope for the future by the end.
It’s a rocky trip but it’s helped along the way by a charismatic and committed cast. David Sullivan is the lead of the film and the linchpin that the film depends on and for the most part, he’s up to being a lead. There’s only so much he can do, but the smartest thing Sullivan does is invest his character with a note of sadness. Wayne isn’t oblivious of the faults he has or the pain he’s caused, and that goes a long ways in helping not write him off as a character. It’s helped tremendously by Bill Heck and Kristin Johnston (who’s changed a lot from her THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN days) just being warm and normal. Things might not be perfect for either of them, but they know how to land on their feet and are good guides for Wayne.
Niels Mueller is originally from Milwaukee and it shows in his direction. There’s a real sense of place of both the small town locations and in Milwaukee itself. Milwaukee sometimes has a rocky relationship with the rest of the State of Wisconsin, but this is the warm blanket version of Milwaukee that highlights its relationship to the rest of the State. Mueller is aided by some very nice cinematography by Nathaniel Goodman. Goodman has primarily worked in television, and is coming off the moody SWAMP THING, but displays a real warmth and humanity in how the film is shot. And if a railroad track happens to cut right through the downtown of a small town, that’s a good visual description of many towns in Wisconsin.
That level of craft elevates a story that has been told before and ultimately makes SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN a solid watch, whether or not you have an investment in seeing Milwaukee depicted in a film. It even manages to stick the end scene, albeit the good final line of dialogue didn’t need to be repeated. You don’t need to be provincial to enjoy SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN.
SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN is streaming throughout the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival which runs from October 15 to 29, 2020. Tickets to individual films and passes to the festival as a whole can be purchased via Milwaukee Film.