Odds are that finding someone from Small Town Mid-West USA means finding someone with an unpleasant past. Economic strife leads to long hours. Long hours to drinking. Drinking to domestic abuse. And the cycle continues ad infinitum unless you’re lucky enough to extricate yourself from the black hole of familial history proving too heavy to bear. It’s why Alicia (Kristen Johnston) got out around the time her abusive, alcoholic father passed away. It’s why Deidra (Tanya Fischer) and her new husband Stu (David Sapiro) are looking to escape themselves. And it’s why Wayne (David Sullivan) is quite literally drowning after inevitably inheriting his and Alicia’s father’s disease. No amount of love for his son with Deidra (Cooper J. Friedman’s Tyler) can excuse the resulting anger, neglect, or self-destruction.
Director Niels Mueller and screenwriter Jason Naczek aren’t afraid of putting a humorous spin on what’s happening—Wayne being self-conscious enough about his rage to snap himself out of it and attempt comedic diffusion before things get out-of-hand helps—but they also realize the crippling despair inherent to “rock bottom.” That’s ultimately where Wayne resides at the beginning of Small Town Wisconsin. He’s just let the latest late-night bowling bender smash the back window of his car and make him late picking up Tyler. Add a few more six-packs and he ends up being late to drop him off too. So he’s without a leg to stand on at Monday morning’s custody hearing. The judge has seen his dereliction of duty too often to ignore it yet again.
How will Wayne accept this reckoning? Will he blame Deidra or look inwards and recognize his fate was his own doing? It should come as no surprise that he decides on a compromise instead: give Tyler one last hurrah to ensure his son never forgets him just in case everything everyone says about him probably dying young like his dad comes true. Sell his baseball cards, buy front-row Brewers tickets, and give the boy a taste of big city living before Stu does after they move to Phoenix. He’s still going to have to bend the truth a bit to swing it (and Deidra is going to demand a chaperone in Bill Heck’s Chuck, his much more responsible best friend despite appearances), but it just might work.
While this road trip to Milwaukee is what the marketing materials and synopses focus on as far as the film’s central crux, it takes a long time getting there and it’s not quite what you might assume when it finally does. This isn’t a knock on Mueller’s film, though. It’s actually a compliment since Small Town Wisconsin is always proving itself to be more than its familiar premise thanks to Naczek’s ability to infuse a lot more drama into the mix than one custody battle. We have Wayne’s stubborn refusal to reach out to Alicia and her son Matt (Braden Andersen). There’s Chuck’s own marital strife. And there’s the alcoholism taking control whenever the tiniest hiccup arrives to throw plans astray. This journey is about survival.
More than the dynamic between Wayne and Tyler, the moments that truly resonate are therefore those shared by Wayne and Chuck. The latter also languishes in a trailer park outside the town where they grew up, barely scraping by at the local auto shop. And even though Chuck appears happier, we see how it only takes one secret to deliver a knockout blow of introspection. Where they differ is his clarity to let it wash over him and see the writing on the wall. Wayne has been chained to his own misfortune too long to follow suit—his past rules him with an iron fist. When they’re this far from home, however, he won’t always have the choice to let it. He can’t just run from Chuck’s help by default.
He can’t run from anything anymore, especially not upon waking up to find himself bailed out after dropping the ball yet again. This is make it or break it time and he’s stumbled into a perfect storm of potential in which to embrace the former while surrounded by the love of those he doesn’t believe he deserves. Wayne sees what his sister built outside their family’s shadow. He finally drops his defenses to actually listen to what Chuck has to say instead of brushing it off with a joke. And it won’t be perfect. Naczek and Mueller never let him off the hook where it comes to rolling with the punches of mistakes made to come out the other side and understand the world didn’t end.
That’s a crucial lesson we should all keep at the forefront of our minds. Kids are resilient. If things don’t go as planned, they bounce back and enjoy what occurs in its place. Adults like Wayne aren’t so flexible, though, since they know that disappointment and struggle to ensure their kids won’t in ways that prove detrimental for everyone. You have to be able to make lemonade out of lemons and the best of what you’re given because some things are out of your control. You have to find ways to make bad situations work despite long odds because the self-pity left behind is a horrible consolation prize. Will it be tough when Tyler moves to Phoenix? You bet. But the opportunities it affords outweigh that initial strife.
Sullivan has a lot of support from Heck and Johnston, but he really does shoulder so much of the emotional baggage here for the film to be a success. We have to believe he both cares about his son and is helpless from combatting the drink in order to prove it. The way he deflects and avoids confrontation to do so is very effective thanks to his knack for looking completely resolute and defeated at the same time. Wayne’s sadness is visible in every frame no matter what’s going on and it will probably be there for years afterward whether or not he’s able to kick his addiction and be the father the others know he can be. It starts with a belief in oneself and a willingness to grow.
Small Town Wisconsin is currently playing the Buffalo International Film Festival’s online edition.