Allan Mindel, better known as the producer of such seminal indies as Gus Van Sant's “My Own Private Idaho,” “Pie in the Sky,” and “Bodies, Rest and Motion,” makes an impressive directorial debut with “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” a modest indie about a band of outsiders stuck in a small-town. Without condescending to his characters, all eccentric and bizarre, and avoiding sentimentality in treating deviant behavior, Mindel serves the story without ever calling attention to his directorial touches.
The film boasts wonderful performances from actors who are best known for their indie work, such as Troy Garity, Alison Folland, Randy Quaid, and Bruce Dern. “Milwaukee, Minnesota” is more about mood, texture, and characterization than plot, which is rather simple.
Endowed with a special gift, Albert Burroughs (Troy Garity) can hear the fish talking under the ice. That's his secret to being a champion ice fisherman. Though well into his twenties, Albert is accompanied by his mother to all the tournaments he attends, where he has won substantial prize money.
Over and over again, his over-protective mom Edna (Debra Monk) imparts two basic rules: “You can't stare at pretty girls, and you can't photocopy 20-dollar bills.” Albert works as a copy boy for Sean McNally (Bruce Dern), a stern man who takes special interest in his employee, functioning as a surrogate father. Albert is bright enough to suspect that there must be reasons for his mother to be so unfriendly to McNally.
When street-smart Tuey Stites (Alison Folland) and her hypochondriac teenaged brother Stan (Hank Harris) drift into the quaint Milwaukee suburbs, they think they have stumbled on an opportunity to make quick cash. Smooth-talking traveling salesman Jerry James (Randy Quaid) arrives into town, and he, too, is on the lookout for a quick buck.
Before long, Albert falls for Tuey, who teases him with her sexy outfits.
Lonely and isolated, he is almost inclined to believe Jerry's claim that he is his birth father. At first, the ever-trusting Albert doesn't suspect that Tuey is conniving or that Jerry could be dangerous.
It seems that everyone is after the hidden fortune of Albert, who's perceived as nave and stupid. Albert may be slow, but he's actually smarter, more honest, and more sensitive than all of them.
Garity (Jane Fonda's son), who received critical acclaim for his role as a soldier in love with a transgendered performer in “Soldier's Girl,” gives a strong performance in a role that could easily have been actorish and excessive in mannerism. It's good to see again Alison Folland, who had excelled as the ugly duckling lesbian in “All Over Me” and as one of the working-class girls manipulated by Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant's “To Die For.”
Cinematographer Bernd Hendl, who had shot Uli Edel's “The Little Vampire,” Michael Steinberg's “Bodies, Rest and Motion,” Bryan Gordon's “Pie in the Sky,” and Percy Adlon's “Bagdad Caf,” gives the film a sharp look. Shot in the winter, visually, “Milwaukee, Minnesota” recalls the Coen brothers' “Fargo,” in capturing the sort of landscape, both human and physical, that's seldom seen anymore in indie films.
The film's intimate scale is suitable for the kind of story that it tells, though in today's market, describing a film as small and modest might works against it. It has taken too long for “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” which had played Slamdance and Cannes last year, to get theatrical distribution stateside, but it deserves to be seen on the big screen.