As filmmaker Andrew Kightlinger searched for what to name his newest movie, he knew he wanted something "rooted in South Dakota."
Tater tot casserole, a favorite regional dish, came to mind. He also has a friend nicknamed Tater Tot. Eventually, that morphed into the movie's name: "Tater Tot & Patton."
"It just happened," he admits with a laugh, then added: "What’s funny about the movie, is there is no tater tot casserole in the movie."
Nevertheless, it boasts a distinctly Midwestern flavor.
Written and directed by Kightlinger, "Tater Tot & Patton" is a character-driven drama that tells the story of Andie, a "wayward millennial" who escapes to her alcoholic uncle Erwin’s ranch in South Dakota to, as Kightlinger puts it, "get her life together." Eventually, the two lost characters "lift each other out of their personal ashes," he said.
Erwin is also the "Patton" of the title, Kightlinger noted.
"He’s in essence the general of this ranch," referencing famous General George S. Patton.
Andie is played by Jessica Rothe, a rising star whose film credits include the smash hit musical "La La Land" and the horror thriller "Happy Death Day."
Erwin is played by veteran Boston theater actor Bates Wilder, who was Kightlinger's acting coach in film school. Along with his theater work, Bates' films include "Joy," "Black Mass," "Shutter Island" and "Mystic River."
While Kightlinger said "Tater Tot & Patton" is not exactly a family film — it is rated R, primarily for language and some nudity — the movie has a positive message and is rooted in family ideals.
"Family ties are so important in South Dakota. I think they’re just a placeholder for family in general," he said of the uncle-daughter relationship. "This family is broken, and by the end of it I want to see them back together again, because that’s how we do it in South Dakota."
Filmed entirely in the Pierre and Fort Pierre area, "Tater Tot & Patton" also showcases the vastness of the South Dakota landscape. That's no accident.
"One of my major goals with the film was to capture the feeling of what it’s like to stand in the middle of the prairie and have nothing else around except sky and earth," Kightlinger said.
Dedicated to Kightlinger's father, the film explores loss, grief and healing. It's a journey Kightlinger knows well: Just before his senior year of college, his mother died suddenly from a heart attack. He moved home for a time to live with his dad, and they grieved together. Her death, he said, fuels his art every day.
"I feel like South Dakota healed me, in a way. You’re never fully healed, but it helped me deal with my grief," he said.
It's by no means entirely biographical, though. While the Andie-Erwin dynamic hearkens to Kightlinger's relationship with his dad, he is quick to point out some big differences: Namely, his dad has never been an alcoholic, and he and his father have a strong relationship.
He's close with his extended family as well, describing a general "lack of disorder" in his own familial relationships. But he does remember feeling like an outsider for a time after moving to South Dakota as a child, a sensation infused into Andie's character.
Kightlinger, 31, was born in Madagascar, where his father was a missionary for almost 20 years. When Kightlinger was about 12 years old, he and his family moved back to Pierre.
He graduated from T.F. Riggs High School in 2004, then attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls for his undergraduate, before getting a master of fine arts in film from Boston University. Now living in Los Angeles, Kightlinger said he still considers South Dakota home.
"I miss South Dakota, but Los Angeles is just kind of a necessity for my career," he said.
Despite the distance, Kightlinger wants to continue telling stories about the Midwest. He hopes to combat the stereotype that great art or profound thought can't come from the so-called "flyover states" often forgotten by popular culture.
"It’s important to tell stories about this area, because it’s a new lens into America … that audiences don’t get to peer through that often," he said. "I don’t want to be famous, I don’t want any of those things; I want to make movies that speak to people."
And audiences have been responding. "Tater Tot & Patton" premiered at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA, has played at the Beloit International Film Festival, and is on the docket for the Omaha Film Festival this week in Nebraska, and the Fargo Film Festival March 20-24 in North Dakota.
Closer to home, the film will open this year's Black Hills Film Festival, playing April 25 at the Elks Theatre in Rapid City.
After that, Kightlinger says he hopes to release the movie in theaters all across South Dakota and, eventually, onto a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon.
In the meantime, he already has other projects in the works, and he intends to bring as many as he can back to South Dakota.
"My goal is to continue to make movies in South Dakota," he said.