Small Town Wisconsin Image

Small Town Wisconsin

By Sumner Forbes | June 16, 2022

Focusing so intently on justice at a specific locale in cinema often necessitates shedding the rose-colored glasses that come with adoration of a location. Sure, nearly every frame of director Niels Mueller’s Small Town Wisconsin is colored by his love of the titular state and its unassuming inhabitants. But neither he nor screenwriter Jason Naczek are afraid of getting to the core of what makes these characters tick, warts and all.

What results is an affecting family drama about Wayne (David Sullivan), a loving but decidedly deadbeat dad living in rural Wisconsin. He’s trying with every fiber of his being to right the ship in the aftermath of losing custody of his young son Tyler (Cooper J. Friedman) to ex-wife Deidra (Tanya Fischer) and her successful new husband Stu (David Shapiro). Unfortunately for Wayne, they are moving to Arizona and intend to bring Tyler along.

Finally realizing the cost of his alcoholic escapades, Wayne, with the reluctant assistance of his best friend, Chuck (Bill Heck), endeavor to show Tyler the time of his life in Milwaukee as a sort of last hurrah – this includes seeing their beloved Brewers. This quest, in part, also serves as Wayne’s opportunity to tell Tyler that he’s moving to Arizona and that he’ll be better off for it.

“…his best friend, Chuck, endeavor to show Tyler the time of his life in Milwaukee as a sort of last hurrah…”

This may sound like a dour experience on paper, but Small Town Wisconsin is quite funny throughout, largely as a result of the chemistry between Wayne and Chuck, two characters seemingly molded to reflect the coastal stereotypes of white, blue-collar males from Middle America. Indeed, as Wayne attempts bowling while holding the ball out of his car window in the parking lot, we realize these are not characters that would be at home in the seemingly endless barrage of largely uninteresting films about the benign plights of overprivileged Angelinos and New Yorkers.

The comparison between this and Alexander Payne’s seminal 2013 film Nebraska is hard to avoid. Both films, while disarming the audience with the depiction of a distinctive Middle American culture on the surface, manage to dig up surprisingly poignant stories of fatherhood and what that word ultimately means. And Mueller, like Payne, expertly knows how to make these interactions more poignant because of, not in spite of, his characters’ stoicism with regard to feelings.

The performances of Sullivan and Heck are, to my mind, the highlight of the film. Wayne and Chuck may not be discussing the works of Pynchon or Roth at their latest book club meeting, but there’s an earnestness on their surfaces that is endlessly refreshing. Feelings aren’t easy to talk about for these two men who readily only seem to talk about baseball and beer, but as Wayne’s alcoholism begins to take its toll, Chuck is there to help him put his life back together.

It’s hard for me not to wish that Mueller had quickened the pace a bit in the earlier portions of the film, just so the trip to Milwaukee was given more space to develop. But even if we are shown one too many examples of Wayne’s destructive behavior early on, I dare anyone to try and keep their eyes dry during the closing sequences. Small Town Wisconsin is a success in almost every regard, and if you can see over the legions of cheeseheads in the rows ahead of you, it shouldn’t be missed.

Small Town Wisconsin (2022)

Directed: Niels Mueller

Written: Jason Naczek

Starring: David Sullivan, Bill Heck, Cooper J. Friedman, Kristen Johnston, Tanya Fischer, etc.

Movie score: 8.5/10

Small Town Wisconsin Image

"…a success in almost every regard..."

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