On-screen intergenerational clashes, especially those between millennials and the older generation, are a dime a dozen. In a play for laughs, the two groups clash over texting, social media, money, and avocados. But in Andrew Kightlinger’s new film, Tater Tot & Patton, both generations are portrayed with nuance and care, coming together in an attempt to understand, heal, and grieve. Sure, there is a little bit of cheesy millennial dialogue (“hardcore cringe”) but this is not a film that tries to poke fun at either group. Rather, it shows the individual struggles and strengths that go unnoticed due to assumptions about age and gender.
Tater Tot & Patton takes place on a ranch in South Dakota, run by Erwin (Bates Wilder). He spends his days keeping up the land, caring for cattle, and drinking beer after beer. But his quiet routine is interrupted when his niece, Andie (Jessica Rothe), comes to stay with him from L.A. in lieu of going to rehab. She is the image of a stereotypical spoiled millennial, demanding the wifi password, refusing to eat meat, and groaning at minor inconveniences. But as soon as these character traits are introduced, they are wiped away in the name of giving her more depth. Erwin gets a similar treatment, never seeming like a stereotypical redneck or country boy, but rather a sympathetic character in the throes of grief. As Andie spends more time with her uncle, they each learn more about each other and realize how much they need one another to heal their respective traumas.
Much of the film’s power comes from its minimal dialogue and stellar performances by Rothe and Wilder. Tater Tot & Patton isn’t afraid of silence, which works to its advantage. It doesn’t try to force interaction or strained dialogue, but rather recognizes the power of saying nothing at all, letting facial expressions and sighs tell a story. Rother and Wilder have an amazing on screen relationship, with a platonic, familial chemistry that sells the whole film.
Erwin’s character, and Wilder’s performance, is phenomenal. Kightlinger pours so much care into representing a different side of masculinity that isn’t just about violence and machismo. The cowboy-rancher character is often seen as a violent, angry drunk who hates women. Erwin is an alcoholic, but he is more than a trope. He is allowed to cry, laugh, yell, and contemplate, showing a masculinity that tries to break away from toxicity, as if to say, “Guys, it is ok to cry and talk about what makes you sad.”
Cinematographer Per portrays South Dakota as dry, hot, and beautiful, a monochromatic landscape peppered with lone trees. It is a place often forgotten, but Per reminds us of its beauty, especially in its sunsets that color the sky purple and orange. It feels like a place where you can actually breathe.
In a rather beautiful scene, Andie and Erwin robotrip together (yes, it sounds strange, but bear with me). As the cough syrup courses through their veins, the camera shows them silently reveling in a purple sunset while perched on bales of hay. They are presented mostly in long shot, creating a moment that combines the care between two people, their pain, and their relationship to the world around them. It is a scene that in most films would be played for laughs, with an older man getting stoned and making an idiot of himself. But here, it is a quiet moment of introspection and connection. This scene exemplifies the beauty of Tater Tot & Patton, from its setting to its cinematography to its performances.
Tater Tot & Patton is a quiet piece of contemplative cinema that makes you slow down and revel in a story about two people trying to figure out their footing after a series of tragic events. Kightlinger’s latest work takes stereotypical characters and generational assumptions to create a film about connection and healing despite perceived differences. Come for the beautiful cinematography, and stay for the performances of Rothe and Wilder in a film that does what many indie films wish to do: really make you feel something.
Tater Tot & Patton is now available to stream and buy on Amazon Prime.