If you have aging parents, you’ll probably find yourself in familiar territory in Paramount Vantage’s Nebraska. An Oscar contender for Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Director (Alexander Payne), Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson), Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael) and Best Picture, Nebraska is by turns an insightful, tender and painfully humorous look at the walls that separate generations when age takes its toll.
Nebraska chronicles the journey of taciturn Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who’s stubbornly determined to collect a million dollar magazine sweepstakes prize. The contest is an obvious sham but not to Woody who, barred from using his driver’s license, decides to walk, or as Dern brilliantly plays him, shuffle his way to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Montana to cash in his “prize-winning” letter. His son David (“Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte in a wonderfully nuanced, Oscar-worthy performance) finally agrees to drive his pig-headed dad to Nebraska.
The men make a pit stop in Woody’s dreary hometown farming community, where they reconnect with Woody’s former pals, his numerous lifeless brothers and their slacker sons, most of whom are looking for payback. When David’s mom, Kate (June Squibb), and brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) join the impromptu Grant family reunion, it becomes apparent they all have more than a few fences to mend.
While this may sound like a conventional male bonding road picture, with a bucket list tied to one end, it is far from it. Director and native Nebraskan Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) and screenwriter Bob Nelson (a native of South Dakota) have an obvious affinity for the minutiae of family dynamics and dysfunction in the hinterlands. They are especially adept at examining the male psyche (as fathers, sons, lovers and friends) without resorting to cheap melodrama and excessive raunchy language.
The women, although peripheral to the action, are clearly the gatekeepers. There’s sharp-tongued mom Kate (June Squibb) who hilariously tells it like it is; David’s fed-up girlfriend whose departure triggers David’s self exploration; and Woody’s unexpected first love, who wistfully recalls her beau in a softer light.
David is the lynchpin here. His love for his dad is evident during the often comical banter they share over a bottle of beer and during emergency side trips to the E.R. and contretemps with his dad’s old cronies. Whether he’s tracking down the whereabouts of his ale-addled dad’s false teeth, hovering over his cranky dad in the hospital, or offering a sane voice and steadying hand during visits to his dad’s old haunts, David finally gets his chance to close the gap and forgive the father he’s been dodging for his entire adult life. For both men, this “prize” is well worth the journey.
Nebraska takes a refreshing look at how the lack of communication between fathers and sons and their wives and mothers, respectively, can leave us, at the end of life, in a dark place unless we open the conversation before it’s too late. The film is appropriately shot in black and white, and if that distracts you, you’re not listening.–Judith Trojan