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.