Albert (Troy Garity, "Barbershop") is a mentally challenged young man with an unexpected gift: he can ice fish better than anyone. Using his gifts in competitions, Albert has amassed a fortune in prize money that his mother (Debra Monk, "Palindromes") has helped him safely hide. When Albert's mother is killed, an opportunist (Allison Folland, "To Die For"), and a killer (Randy Quaid) come rolling into town, looking to take advantage of Albert and steal his money.
If the Coen Brothers' 1996 film "Fargo" had a kid brother, it would be "Milwaukee, Minnesota" (IMDb listing).
"Milwaukee" is a "Minnenoir" motion picture that, while small in scope and budget, comes together competently and pleasingly. A former producer of iconic independent films ("My Own Private Idaho," "Bodies Rest & Motion"), Allan Mindel has decided to give directing a try, and his first feature doesn't stray far from the less-is-more-because-we-couldn't-afford-more school of filmmaking. "Milwaukee" (the title refers to the irrelevance of Midwestern cities) doesn't have much narrative power, and lacks a propulsive forward motion that audiences come to expect from thrillers like this. However, what the film misses in money and scale it makes up for in unique locations, and a breezy pace. Set amongst the infinite snow-covered landscape of Wisconsin, Mindel drinks the visuals in, creating an isolating atmosphere for Albert that mirrors his character's journey. Using vast fishing competitions, fleabag hotels, and warmly decorated 50-year-old suburban houses, Mindel captures life in the Midwest without resorting to cheap regional theatrics like the Coens did. Thankfully, Mindel and screenwriter R.D. Murphy stay far away from the "Oh, yahhhhh" Minnesota stereotypes, and focus in on the story, where the real fun lies.
Since "Milwaukee" is a modest production, Mindel relies on his actors to help get the film to the finish line. The cast is uniformly great, especially Garity, who pulls off the iffy role of Albert without making the sympathetic character a golden child. It's really Allison Folland who steals the film with a performance that is miles from what she's done before. Always cast in sullen, teen-angsty roles, Folland savors the chance to play a femme fatale with a decidedly angry streak. Folland can't always keep control of her acting, but the change is wonderful to see.
The abrupt closure (though a beautiful last shot) to "Milwaukee, Minnesota" doesn't help the nagging feeling that some more dramatic meat might've been required to make the film soar; but it also reminds the viewer that this is a film about small pleasures and aspirations. Being grandiose would ruin the effect of this humble, winning feature.
Filmfodder Grade: B