As much as Small Town Wisconsin plays with the cyclical archetypes that tend to plague middle-America – that of long working hours turning to a reliance on drinking, which, in turn, morphs into potential abuse – it’s a film that wants to remove its characters from such burdens all the same. It’s why Wayne (David Sullivan) tries his hardest to stay afloat of the alcoholism that’s drowning him, whilst those closest to him – his sister, Alicia (Kristen Johnson), who left home not long after their father passed away, and his ex-wife (Tanya Fischer) – have orchestrated their own escapes so they aren’t caught in his self-destruction.
Wayne’s framing in the film doesn’t always paint him in the most likeable of ways. We can see he’s a victim of his own substance abuse, and he’s trying so desperately to be a good father to his son (Cooper J. Friedman’s Tyler) in the process, but his derelict actions are too prevalent for the judge ruling in his current custody battle to ignore. Realizing that the more he continues on his current path, the closer he is to losing his son entirely, Wayne has no choice but to look inward and face the fact that this wrongdoing is of his own directive.
In a move that’s narratively exactly what you’d expect from such a film, Wayne decides to give Tyler a “last hurrah” weekend, one that will hopefully imprint enough on the young lad so that he doesn’t forget just who his father is. The ex isn’t entirely sold, but she allows it under the condition that Wayne is chaperoned – enter the more responsible Chuck (Bill Heck) – on their time away to enjoy big city living in Milwaukee.
Whilst the film is no doubt banking on the fact that many will assume it’s a road trip-type movie, Small Town Wisconsin consistently aims to be more than what its premise suggests. That being said, Niels Mueller’s films is rarely a humorous affair either, with relationship problems and alcoholism masking so many of the central themes; additionally, we learn that Chuck is also experiencing his own issues, whilst Wayne and Matt (Braden Andersen), Alicia’s son, share their own tension due to a connection that’s never truly been formed.
Though there’s nothing wrong with a film leaning into a more depressive state of reality for its characters, there’s very few moments of levity throughout that viewers best be prepared for a more dramatic experience. Johnson’s presence is welcome, with her Alicia so often a voice of reason and a beacon of light, but Sullivan is truly shouldering the film, and even though his character isn’t always agreeable or sufferable, you can see that Wayne cares so deeply about his son but, at the same time, can’t fight his addiction and understands himself that it’ll be something that he’ll combat for years to come. Small Town Wisconsin could hit some home truths for viewers, and though being faced with the truth isn’t always pleasant, it feels necessary in growing towards a happier fruition.
Small Town Wisconsin is available on Digital and On Demand in the United States now. An Australian release date is yet to be determined.