Fresh off the back of Happy Death Day 2U, Jessica Rothe slips comfortably into another angry young millennial role as Andie in Andrew Kightlinger’s sophomore feature Tater Tot & Patton.
A typically wayward young woman obsessed with her phone, drink, drugs and home comforts, we meet Andie in a desperate bid to avoid rehab, opting instead to go and stay with her uncle Erwin (Bates Wilder), a ranch owner in South Dakota and a fervent alcoholic. To say that Erwin himself has fallen off the wagon would be an understatement. The film opens with a crotch-level shot of him laying in bed, beer gut hanging out and off-white boxers on show. He parades around his pit of despair with only his dog for company – and his diet of booze, beans, and tinned goods hardly has him on top form.
An initially abrasive and ignorant character, Andie serves as nothing more than an irritant to Erwin’s peaceful (if incredibly lonely) ranch life. Her seemingly generational demands are laid bare: WiFi, phone service, good food, and a place to sunbathe. All of which Erwin dismisses swiftly, instead giving her exposure to the natural world, teaching her practical skills that quickly aid in her recovery. There’s something undeniably beautiful about the sparse open landscapes cinematographer Per captures, in fact, some of the highest moments of the film are the montages of Andie getting stuck into ranch life; her clear elation at finally chopping some fire wood is nothing but a joy. With so much open space to roam and the stillness of a frames backdrop giving so much breathing room, Rothe and Wilder’s performances really manage to take off.
These characters treat each other with the utmost respect, understanding their differences and struggles and finding a means to aid each other in getting better. With Andie clearly finding some joy in the labour required to run the ranch, she sets about to tackle Erwin’s alcohol intake. The film relies on its subtleties, there’s no intervention and no climactic fights over their addictions. Beer bottles are cleared from household surfaces and the drunk uncle is tucked up with a blanket. There’s a level of compassion shown for the difficulty of these issues that could only be understood by another character facing them.
Attempting to mend themselves and their relationship as uncle and niece would suffice alone in this character study. Kightlinger, however, decides to push the narrative further with increased emotional turmoil as deep family secrets are unearthed. It’s at times heart-breaking, and Wilder knocks it out of the park as the shell of a once-proud man, confused and desperate. It feels like the film comes to its emotional peak quite early on, but the plot continues to move forward. Just as one character becomes settled something comes and knocks everything five steps back. The message that addiction can feel like a helpless and never-ending battle isn’t lost but the film dives off on just one too many tangents that put a spanner in the pacing. For instance, Andie faces an unnecessary romantic subplot with a local boy, Richie (Forrest Weber), that does essentially nothing in the way of aiding her or exposing her true character, when that time could be better focused on her relationship to Erwin, and to herself.
Issues of addiction are certainly not shied away from in cinema, but they are often sensationalised or heightened with set-pieces and editing. Here Kightlinger creates a quiet and subtle take on addiction and familial bonds. Its rural location adds a sense of vastness and beauty that heightens emotions and allows sole focus on its actors. Tater Tot & Patton bridges the generational gap to find a common ground on which to tackle addiction and hard truths to often tragic effect.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here