TATER TOT AND PATTON – Review by Loren King

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Grief in all its messiness, especially as experienced by a middle aged man, is the heart of this sparse, moving indie from writer-director Andrew Kightlinger.

We first see scruffy Erwin (Bates Wilder) in a bleary-eyed morning ritual that will be frequently repeated. He wakes up, beer gut hanging over his underwear, urinates, drops a raw egg into a beer and starts his day. He’s a rancher in the middle of nowhere, which is someplace in South Dakota where the film was shot, living with nothing but a dog, a battered truck, canned beans and booze.

The movie immediately establishes a sense of place — the vacant roads, the sprawling fields dotted with cattle, and Erwin’s modest, unkempt house where framed photos glimpsed in the background indicate he had — or has — loved ones. Sure enough, an estranged family member turns up pretty quickly.

Andie (Jessica Rothe), with the childhood nickname “Tater Tot,” is now a surly millennial who’s left Los Angeles to invade Erwin’s life, thinking she’s come to stay with her aunt Tilly. Instead, she finds her uncle living alone, drinking himself into a stupor and ordering his niece to help him with chores. His own nickname comes from his angry assertion that he’s the famous general in charge of his own domain.

The move is culture shock for Andie who can’t even get a WiFi signal. It’s not clear at first why she’s there, but she later admits that the desolate ranch was a better choice than rehab. She seems a bit too put-together physically and doesn’t give off addict vibes but there is the hint of trouble back home with her mom (her aunt Tilly’s sister) who has told Andie not to bother calling home.

There are the expected clashes and unexpected moments of understanding between this odd couple, made interesting by the performances, particularly from Wilder. Looking like a young, gruff Nick Nolte, he delivers a beaten down, self-destructive character without reducing Erwin to a caricature. The Dakota landscape is beautifully photographed by “Per” (Peter Erich Rudolf) as both epic and intimate, an appropriate setting for two very different souls lost in the wild who manage to find connection and comfort with one another.

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Loren King

Loren King

Loren King's features and film reviews appear regularly in the Boston Globe, Boston Spirit magazine and the Provincetown Banner. She writes Scene Here, a localfilm column, in the Boston Sunday Globe. A member of the Boston Society of Film Critics since 2002, she served as its president for five years.