Whistler Film Festival Day 7: The Beauty & Perfect Americana of Small Town Wisconsin

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For this film loving fan, Day 7 of this year’s Whistler Film Festival is the most important one to me. I have been waiting many months to write this article; so much so that another good movie that premieres today (THE CORRPUTION OF DIVINE PROVIDENCE) was pushed to yesterday as a “sneak preview” as I am doing my Day 7 WFF blast devoted to one very special motion picture experience.

Out of my many jobs in this industry, I must disclose that I am on the screening committee for Whistler Film Festival. Myself along with a small group of media and industry were sent a long list of titles to review in consideration for inclusion at the festival. Yes, I wear many hats in this game and it gets me busy. But I also feel that the movies that in this festival need to reach more people, so here I am. And this is the ONLY film in the WFF lineup that came with a glowing recommendation from yours truly when submitted to the festival for inclusion earlier in the summer. Thanks to my good friend Paul Gratton, the programmer in charge of this mighty festival, this movie is in the 2020 edition, and he has my personal thanks for its inclusion. So with that out of the way, allow me to gush. 

Small Town Wisconsin (United States, dir. Niels Mueller)

SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN, a grand motion picture experience about a simple guy trying to do the right thing, is a flat out American Masterpiece and also a great reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place, to escape but also to identify with everything and everyone that is on screen.  In fact, this movie is so wonderful and equal parts dramatic and funny that I dare ask why this movie is even IN a film festival; Niels Mueller’s new feature is such a perfect piece of Americana that it should be screening on every movie theater in North America, have a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score and win an Oscar for one particular legendary performance.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN is the simple and beautiful story of a man named Wayne (David Sullivan) who is down on his luck. An alcoholic through-and-through and not taking much responsibility for his adult life, we first see him with a big smile on his face as he’s partying and drinking with his friends, much to the chagrin of his best friend Chuck (Bill Heck). In the following scenes, we clearly and understandably see why he’s not only divorced but also at odds with his wife. Yet Wayne has a deep connection with his son Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman) who still gets visitation. After a weekend stay at Wayne’s  run-down trailer apartment where a grease fire almost happens, Wayne’s wife reveals that she and her fiance are moving to Phoenix and wants full custody of Tyler. Wayne is of course infuriated, but manages to convince his ex-wife to allow a weekend of camping with Tyler (which actually turns out to be a weekend getaway including a baseball game in Milwaukee) before she and her new fiance sell the house and move to Phoenix.

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Even from that description it sounds like we have been down this road before, but the devil is in the details and it feels like SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN has a million of them, many subtle but there. I have seen a tremendous amount of family dramas over many decades, yet there’s an absolute magic present in all of its 110 minutes. When you watch the movie, you slowly start to get drawn in and involved. You care. You understand everyone’s side. We especially get to know Wayne, what he’s capable of and exactly what he wants out of life along with his love for Tyler.

But it’s not just him; every character here has their own unique voice and reasoning which elevates all of the material. Wayne’s ex-wife is a good woman with a positive outlook when it comes to Wayne and Tyler spending time together, but just doesn’t see eye to eye in other areas. His best friend Chuck — who himself is a great friend and somewhat of a caretaker of Wayne when he really messes up —  winds up tagging along on the weekend road-trip as a chaperone and builds a unique relationship in Milwaukee with Wayne’s sister Alicia (a surprising and lovely appearance by THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN’S Kristen Johnston). There is also a troubled past between Wayne and Alicia that Chuck’s help winds up bringing to a head, but it is dealt with in a beautiful and unique way. Even Wayne’s son Tyler has his own unique and fun loving personality where you can see he picked up the good parts of Wayne and not the bad. In fact, I was moved the most by the dynamic relationship between father and son; you absolutely believe this father/son relationship in the same way WFF alum Patrick Wang’s custody drama IN THE FAMILY (2011) had a similar connection between parent and child. In addition to this, all of the minor characters, from a kind and supportive hotel clerk, to a stadium employee who has to break some bad news, right down to a sympathetic judge early in the picture all have three dimensions. 

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What sets this movie apart and over the moon of other flawed man-child parent roles is the lead performance by David Sullivan as our flawed but deeply human hero Wayne. You have likely seen the role of an alcoholic father trying to do right for his kid, but I have never quite seen it in the movies in the way that Sullivan portrays him. Sullivan carefully brings this lug to a completely new level as a richly complex and heartfelt individual that makes you laugh with him instead of AT him from the very first few moments on screen and you get on his side almost immediately. Yes, Wayne drinks a lot. And he may not be fit to have even partial custody of Tyler. Even he knows this himself. But he has heart. He’s smart in some ways and not so much in others. He thinks. He reacts. He tries. He learns from his mistakes. He even tries not to drink (in one of the most impressive scenes, he’s holding onto a small liquor bottle on a pivotal scene on a tour boat and my heart just went out to him). He is no-nonsense with his ex-wife and pleads for understanding, but can turn on a dime and be a total charmer when his son comes into the room. In one early moment he’s throwing a bowling ball out of a car while drinking and driving to a hilarious payoff. In another scene, which brought tears to my eyes while watching it, he’s consoling his son after he nearly causes an accident in their home. The words he uses to describe the reaction is an absolutely unforgettable moment, and even with his faults you absolutely love him in every frame and root for him. Later in the movie, we feel his pain in trying to tell his son about his upcoming move to Phoenix, still unbeknownst to Tyler, and my heart was absolutely breaking at extreme closeups of Wayne as he’s very close to his son trying to get the words out. Sullivan is a skilled performer with many years of credits, yet it seems like this is the role that he was put on this earth to play.

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And it’s not just in the near-perfect performances; this is also a wonderfully made picture that has “American Indie” written all over it and movies I think of, like the earlier mentioned IN THE FAMILY, of unique American voices still existing in 2020. SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN was directed by Niels Mueller, who popped onto my radar all the way back in 2004 when he made the solid THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON starring Sean Penn and Don Cheadle. Having not directed a feature since (he was mostly known as the screenwriter on the early 2000’s indie hit TADPOLE and has done some TV work), I truly hope it’s not another sixteen years until we see another work like this from him. His remarkably restrained style absolutely services Wayne’s journey with, just to note a few, a precise cinematic direction in every shot, a quiet and touching music score that eases you right into the world, and a gentle but elegant visual style that lovingly shows middle America from its small towns to its mid sized cities with true love for all of its charm and beauty. I have never visited this area of the United States before, living in Western Canada, but I was absolutely convinced that this is a perfect representation of this area of the world, and a place that I would love to visit sometime. I have noted so many great things that I am surprised I haven’t mentioned yet that this is also pretty funny throughout with its characters, but it’s also in parts a road trip movie, one of my favourite genres in the movies, and it ranks along with the best. It’s thanks to all of Mueller’s dedicated work that his wonderful cinematic design effectively balances the real and bold performances out of every last character in this movie. 

It sounds cliche to say but reader, I laughed, cried and felt overjoyed throughout this entire cinematic experience. When you just emerge from a motion picture feeling changed and inspired, it is seriously one of the best feelings a moviegoer can have. This seriously feels like cameras just dropped into the lives of these people and we are casual observers in something that is really happening, and it’s all thanks to a skilled filmmaking and acting team that swung for the fence. This is exactly the movie I look for when I go to film festivals, and I can only hope that audiences find this movie, love it HALF as much as I did, and share it with everyone they know …which is the very, very least that SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN deserves. 

Rating: **** out of ****

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If you haven’t seen any titles at this year’s virtual Whistler Film Festival yet, start here. SMALL TOWN WISCONSIN is now streaming in Canada until December 30th through the Whistler Film Festival website. It will be the best $15 you spend all year. And if you are not in Canada and this comes to a film festival near you, don’t miss it. 

#WFF20 is here! Join in celebrating cinematic excellence with 97 fresh films, including 30 features and 67 shorts, premiering through December 20th and available to Canadian audiences online until December 31. Once you order a film, you have 24 hours to watch it. (We at Get Reel Movies recommend the TV streaming box Apple TV or even the Roku app, both of which I use to stream titles this year.) Plus, WFF has pledged to share net online proceeds on a 50/50 basis directly with the filmmakers or Canadian rights holders.

For more information, visit www.whistlerfilmfestival.com

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