'Tater Tot & Patton' film review: An unassuming, atmospheric indie winner
A pair of stand-out lead performances anchored by a nuanced screenplay highlight the melancholic and deliberately-paced indie drama "Tater Tot & Patton" (which screened at the 2018 Beloit International Film Festival).
In short: Young Los Angeles millennial Andie (Jessica Rothe, "Happy Death Day") stays with her quiet, drunken uncle Erwin (Bates Wilder) on his South Dakota ranch.
Writer-director Andrew Kightlinger has crafted an intimate, character-rooted drama set against a vivid Dakota backdrop. He infuses the fish-out-of-water premise with two deeply human and hurt souls, whose rudderless existences have quite accidentally crossed paths. And the solitary and remote ranch is every bit a tertiary character, essentially forcing the polar opposite Andie and Erwin to bristle in their co-existence, forced into the close quarters of the small rambler without wifi or air conditioning, as if they are alone on an island, far from the nearest highway.
"Tater Tot" resists the easy out of reducing either Andie or Erwin into broad caricatures - she's not a vapid Angelino and he's not a country bumpkin. Co-leads Rothe and Wilder are a perfectly mismatched pair that prove to be two equally lost souls. Their initial character differences are drastic - but superficial. Instead of emphasizing their differences, "Tater Tot" leverages the contrasting surface traits into character friction, which only serves the story which then explores the similarities Andie and Erwin share - and what brought her from L.A. to South Dakota and what led him to live alone on a ranch.
Running at a brisk 91 minutes, "Tater Tot" is a streamlined and well-paced character drama. Even the quiet moments that linger do so with clear intent - to establish setting, character or tone. Kightlinger relies on virtually no lazy exposition, opting instead to let the film reveal its characters' backstories and their feelings in unspoken moments and deliberately dropped hints. Within the first 5 minutes, the audience has a solid understanding of what makes Andie and Erwin tick, as well as a familiarity of the world they will inhabit.
Final verdict: Kightlinger delicately crafted a very specific world for his characters to live in and the duo of Rothe and Wilder vividly fleshed out their compelling and damaged protagonists. Founded by a strong screenplay, beautiful/stark cinematography and strong lead performances, "Tater Tot" feels like a fully actualized vision brought to cinematic life.
"Tater Tot & Patton" screened during the 2018 Beloit International Film Festival. This film is unrated and has a running time of 91 minutes.