‘How bad can your life be, you’re white, you got a dick?’ asks Alicia (Kristen Johnson) of the protagonist of Neils Muller’s comedy/drama; she’s got a point. We hear a lot about white male privilege, but there’s plenty of white men out there who don’t feel that they benefit from any such thing. Wayne (David Sullivan) is just such a man; he struggles to hold down a job as a mechanic, drinks too much, is generally someone who might be termed a ‘goof-off’ and is also father to adoring son Tyler (Cooper J Friedman).
Family tension quickly gives way to drama; Wayne is on a sticky wicket with his ex, and feels the need to guzzle two six packs of beer a day, although being a sophisticated drunk, there’s also ‘brandy and wine-coolers’ to factor in. That combination of censorious attention and uncontrolled drinking leads Wayne to accidentally cause a kitchen oil inferno which Tyler unwisely attempts to put out with water. This near miss means that Wayne loses custody over his son, who faces a new school away from his influence in big city Milwaukee. Horrified at the consequences of his actions, Wayne resolves to create a symbolic victory and give Tyler the best introduction to the city imaginable…
Why should we be interested in yet another deadbeat dad? Well, let’s start with Alexander Payne, who executive produces here; those who enjoyed films like Sideways and Election will respond to the self-deceiving characters features here. Small Town Wisconsin offers similar pleasures to Payne’s popular style; Wayne is a frustrating, stubborn, idealistic and hopelessly inept character that will inevitably breaks our hearts. But he’s well matched with the sparky, rarely sullen Tyler, and also with his fellow mechanic Chuck (a wonderfully drawn portrait from Bill Heck) who reluctantly agrees to chaperone father and son on their three day trip to Milwaukee to take in a ball game. Johnson also gives an emotionally fluid performance as sister Alicia who provides a bolt-hole when Wayne’s plans predictably come crashing down.
‘You’re going to see what an ocean looks like’ Wayne promises Tyler, but instead Wayne ends up providing a glimpse into the depths of white male failure; Jason Naczek’s script keeps us guessing where the final coup de grace for Wayne’s ambitions will come from, but when it arrives, it’s every bit as agonising as might have been imagined. But Small Town Wisconsin is more than just a cringe comedy; the characters all turn out to have more to offer than on first appearance, and some kind of redemption is possible for Wayne after all. Small Town Wisconsin is the kind of indie that used to make a trip to the cinema worthwhile; well-acted, thoughtful, careful in its description of the interplay of a shattered family unit, it’s a warm-hearted story of everyday life that’s easy to recommend for those who like films about people rather than portals and vortexes.
Thanks to Quiver Distribution for access. Out in US cinemas June 3 and available on DIGITAL and ON DEMAND, June 10th 2022.