She had a choice — “Rehab, or my sister’s farm!”
That’s what put Andie in South Dakota, a turbo-prop airport her last connection to what this Angelino coed might have seen as “the civilized world.”
She lets Mom know she arrived with a “Landed in the sh—–e” text.
And the uncle passed out, beer-drunk in his ancient Silverado in the parking lot? He’s not much for conversation on the ride back to the dump of a ranch on the rolling, treeless prairie.
“It’s kind of flat…” Nothing.
“Can we listen to some music?”
He hasn’t seen her since she was an oft-naked toddler, “Tater Tot” he called her. She has no memories of him, but his drinking and sullen hostility at her every query — Cell service? Wifi? Air conditioning? — set us up for a grimly comical war of wills.
“No AC, Princess,” he sniffs, before thundering about he is “King, Queen,” God and “George S. Patton” on this piece of land. And whatever she was going to get out of rehab, she’s REALLY in for it here.
“Tater Tot & Patton” is a quiet fish-out-of-water dramedy in mourning, a simple movie lifted by the compact performances of its leads — Jessica Rothe and Bates Wilder.
Rothe has upped her quote since this indie prairie idyll was filmed, thanks to the “Happy Death Day” movies. This could be her last turn as a college girl, and she makes a great case for why any actress who can still pull it off should play women that age.
She gives subtle shadings to a “spoiled brat” coping with pain that she starts to recognize in her always-tipsy Uncle Erwin. And she’s worked long enough (she’s over 30) to have the timing that makes the lighter moments and their one-liners pay off.
Meeting the lone farmhand Erwin leans on (Forrest Weber) is a breathless delight — for him. He’s trying to learn French, plans to travel but lacks polish in every imaginable way.
“You’ve got some soft ass skin,” he says, a tad too directly. “Welcome to the suck!”
“Hardcore criiiinge,” Andie mutters, half-aloud in her best SoCal vocal fry.
Writer-director Andrew Kightlinger’s debut foray in character study is an immersive experience, a myopic and unsurprising drama that revels in its sense of place. The details are South Dakota sharp, the grasp of small-time ranching — a little hard work, here and there, a lot of time to mope — is on the money.
Because Erwin mopes. His wife, Andie’s Aunt Tillie? She’s in “Rochester” (Mayo Clinic). “She’s got the cancer.”
Wilder, a veteran bit player (“Joy,””Detroit”) lets it all hang out as Erwin, a performance built on gruff exchanges and a whole series of “Not a good look for you” moments. Erwin swills his morning after beer after his morning tidy whitey whiz, showing off the ugliest pot-bellied belly button this side of science fiction.
The one thing Erwin can still manage is lord it over the estranged niece — dumping water on her to wake her up, force-feeding her franks and beans and dropping chores on her because a ranch he’s let go, aside from daily “ride the line” drives the check his fencing, has plenty to do that he’s not bothered doing.
But after the “tough love” labor, the fright of seeing her first rattler (which he beats to death with his belt) and the introduction to the dog he keeps, unloved and chained-up out front — “‘At dog there, he’s named ‘Little Bastard.’ Watch out for’em. He’s a humper.” — there’s time for each to pick up on the hurt the other’s dealing with.
Rothe underplays the “brat,” and gives a low-key sheen to the story of how she got there, the sorts of chemical things college kids do to “party” these days.
“You kids should drink more beer.”
Wilder is similarly subtle. Mostly he just “is,” a kind of forlorn acknowledgement of what this solitary life in a solitary place — the Lariat Lanes Bowling Alley & Honky Tonk is the only real entertainment outlet — can do to a person. He’s emotionally flat, lonely and depressed. Surviving.
There aren’t many surprises here. The big revelations aren’t revelations at all.
But as Kightlinger no doubt figured out, you cast your picture well and there’s a lot that the players will make understood, secrets that their demeanor and screen presence give away, sentences that only confirm what we already know after we’ve been told why the movie’s called “Tator Tot & Patton.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, alcohol and substance abuse, profanity, lots of bathroom breaks
Cast:Jessica Rothe, Bates Wilder, Forrest Weber
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Kightlinger. A Giant Interactive release.
Running time: 1:32