West Michigan (2021)

Small films about family relationships have become more ubiquitous in recent years, but it’s always intriguing when families make their own films about families. West Michigan is a small drama about the relationship between a brother and sister, produced by a brother and sister team. Riley Warmoth writes and directs himself and his sister, Chloe Ray Warmoth, in a story that details the complexity, and humor, of typical familial drama.

West Michigan gently tells the story of Charlie and Hannah, siblings who travel up Michigan’s coast to visit their dying grandfather. Hannah is struggling with a breakup and overbearing ex-boyfriend, Charlie with trying to understand his sister and maintain a lackadaisical distance. When the car breaks down and the pair are forced to camp out, their struggles as siblings become clearer, especially Hannah’s increasingly desperate search for meaning and sense of place.

In many ways, West Michigan contains a somewhat predictable arc—siblings who have difficulty connecting find solace on the road—but does a good job of enhancing those elements via the charm of the central characters and their developing bond. The pair make for a strong screen team, sympathetic and realistic without coming off as cloying or artificial. The lived-in atmosphere of the landscape and the connection between the brother and sister make the film entertaining without slipping into sentimentality or maudlin ruminations on life and death. Hannah is very much a teenager, struggling with her place in the world, hyper-aware of herself and the things that she wants to be (when she knows what those are). Charlie is appropriately befuddled as he tries to understand just what is going on with a sister who responds to every overture and inquiry with hostility and sarcasm. But their relationship runs deeper than that, and the audience senses that we’re watching a deeper arc being played out on the screen.

Michigan’s coast acts as a secondary character in the drama, framing Charlie and Hannah’s relationship as they drive, camp out, and come into conflict. While we’re used to seeing the edges of the American coast, this is the first time I can recall such interest in the Michigan landscape in particular. The film highlights the way that landscape informs on relationships, providing a backdrop for the story to unfold as well as interacting with the narrative itself.

To its credit, West Michigan doesn’t try to do too much. It’s not attempting to solve the problems of the universe or human relationships, nor does it propose to resolve its central sibling relationship simply by setting the two on the road. Charlie and Hannah are close, but their issues exist and probably always will. There are indications of life moving ahead, of Hannah learning to shift in her focus and move on, and of Charlie and Hannah drawing closer together without fully fixing their problems with their family and each other. This is the kind of low-key family drama that achieves a realistic, emotional catharsis without having to solve everything.

West Michigan is now available on VOD.

Tater Tot & Patton (2019)

Tater Tot & Patton (2019)

American independent cinema has grown ever more vibrant over the past few years, but it can sometimes be hard for critics to separate the good from the bad from the merely mediocre, and give opportunities to films that deserve attention. On the surface, writer/director Andrew Kightlinger’s Tater Tot & Patton is yet another independent chamber drama, similar in tone and content to Abundant Acreage Available and any number of contemplative films about the declining Midwest. And the film is that, certainly, but it also stands out from the herd as a rumination on addiction and grief without becoming cloying, sentimental, or depressing.

Tater Tot & Patton focuses on the developing relationship between Andie (Jessica Rothe) and her uncle Erwin (Bates Wilder). After a failed stint in rehab, Andie is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle on their ranch in South Dakota. Her aunt is in the hospital, so Andie has to make do with an alcoholic uncle she barely knows. Erwin is first presented as a taciturn rancher annoyed with having to look after his sister-in-law’s daughter, Andie as a spoiled, phone-obsessed Millennial. But as their relationship grows, the film digs deeper into their characterizations, uncovering their emotional and psychological layers as they spar with each other against the alternately bleak and beautiful South Dakota landscape.

What could be a typical fish-out-of-water narrative becomes a bit more in Tater Tot & Patton. The film evades proposing simple solutions to the characters’ problems, instead focusing in on the way they come to understand and eventually support one another, despite and often because of their brokenness. Erwin’s alcoholism has deeper origins than it at first appears, and his growth is directly tied to his increasing sympathy with his niece, whom he had only known as a four-year-old who used to pour water on people she didn’t like. Andie’s growth is likewise tied not just to the cliché of getting rid of her phone (though there is that) and engaging with the land and the people around her, but in trying to draw out and understand an uncle who continually turns in on himself.

The South Dakota landscape is a character in itself, informing on the characters’ isolation but also pushing their engagement with each other and with the land, acting a metaphor for introspection and self-assessment that is often ugly and frightening. Erwin’s physical isolation permits him to remove himself from human society and from having to engage with his emotions; Andie’s aggressive connectedness allows her to isolate herself in the same way, through disengagement from the world around her. Both have to come to terms with their desire for isolation by interacting with each other, even when they don’t want to.

Tater Tot & Patton does occasionally slip into clichés, but that doesn’t particularly harm the film. It avoids offering clichéd solutions to real-world problems, slipping past the Hollywoodized emphasis on “fixing” people who are damaged, traumatized, or dealing with grief in different forms. Andie and Erwin begin to find help with each other, a way to deal with their emotions together, even if that means occasional co-dependence that might not be healthy in the long-term, but is helpful in the short-term.

There’s much to be said for the current American independent film scene, and Tater Tot & Patton is a good example of what can be achieved with a small cast and a director with a clear, cogent eye for both character and mis-en-scene. It’s a small film, and well worth seeking out.

Tater Tot & Patton is available on VOD, including Amazon, Vimeo, and Vudu.