This might be the first time Alexander Payne didn’t write the screenplay for a film he directed, but the Oscar winner’s handprint is still everywhere. Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) has become one of the most respected auteurs in the business with his ability to portray the most realistic type of characters on the screen. Bittersweet is typically the taste you get from Payne’s work but I have a feeling the comedy might resonate just as long as the sentimental moments in Nebraska. This film has been on the awards track since Cannes, with Dern and Squibb headed straight for Oscar nominations. Some of the themes Payne explored in About Schmidt (also starring Squibb) will be familiar here, but Nebraska is a brilliant exploration of restless small town people.

Woody Grant (Dern) is an old alcoholic who was never a great husband or father. Stuck for most of his life in Billings, Montana, he is more determined now than he has ever been to get to Nebraska and collect the million dollars he swears he has won from a flyer in the mail. “They can’t print it if it isn’t true,” he tries to explain to wife Kate (Squibb) and his younger son David (Forte). To stop his relentless pursuit on foot, David agrees to drive his dad all the way to Nebraska to calm everyone down and spend some time with his ailing dad. Their journey is full of mishaps, falsehoods and, when they stop in Woody’s old stomping ground of Hawthorne, he manages to rile the entire little town up with his million dollar pursuit.

Nebraska is a brilliant exploration of restless small town people.

There is so much brilliance poured into this film, including the acting, the writing and especially Payne’s understanding of which moments we need to experience; it’s simply a joy to watch. These characters, created by Bob Nelson, are endlessly fascinating. The way he recounts and understands the elderly is genius and displays careful understanding and consideration. Dern, with his untamable white hair and unlikely behavior, is fascinating to watch on his own, but it’s more about the reaction he gets from those around him by really doing very little yet saying so much. What his character lacks in dialogue, Squibb’s resentful and fed-up character ignites. The moment we see her you understand this is the type of mouthy performance that steals the show.

Former SNL alum Forte delivers a nice transition from his comedy routine to a polished, best picture worthy film that will certainly give him the traction he needs to pursue a serious acting career. There is a moment in the film where a journalist named Bender really explains all of the reasons why the characters have the behaviors they do. “It happens early around here,” she says. Much like the themes of perseverance in The Descendants, Payne brings all the family’s anger and confusion to a beautiful moment of acceptance and understanding. Payne’s choice to shoot the film in black and white is an interesting one, but the characters are so colorful that you never really miss the hues.

Final Thought

Another brilliant character study by Payne with Oscar worthy performances from Squibb and Dern.


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