Of all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year, Nebraska was the one that interested me the least. Shot in black and white, it looked like a boring movie for oldies about a confused geriatric who is convinced that he’s won a million dollars after receiving one of those sweepstakes letters and is determined to travel nearly 1,400km to collect his prize in person (can’t trust the mail, you see).
Well, Nebraska turned out to be an awesome film, arguably my “surprise hit” of 2013. It’s not for everyone, but at the very least audiences will get a great laugh out of it because it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. And looking past the laughs, it’s actually also a poignant and nuanced road trip drama about family, relationships, and the sad reality of middle America.
The insufferable geriatric described above is Woody, played by Bruce Dern, who is a very outside chance to grab the Best Actor gong this year. He’s stubborn as an ox, can’t hear very well and appears to be in the early stages of dementia. When he refuses to listen to his family that the sweepstakes letter is a scam, his youngest son, David (Will Forte), decides to take Woody on a road trip from Montana to the issuing marketing office in Nebraska just to shut him up.
The trip then takes a detour back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he reacquaints himself with his family and old friends. He is joined there by his wife, played by June Squibb, and his eldest son, played by Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul!”), who have both taken the trip down from Montana to join him for a rare gathering. And what began as a farce would turn into an unanticipated family bonding session.
Nebraska is one of those films that slowly grew on me. I never doubted the quality of the filmmaking in the first place, but I didn’t expect a family drama shot in black and white to be very entertaining to watch. However, the wonderfully developed characters and their hilarious conversations eventually won me over. In particular, June Squibb, who is up for Best Supporting Actress (a dark horse among favourites Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave), is simply magnificent as the snarky wife who is never short of a razor-sharp comment. I laughed at almost everything she said and really hope she wins.
Will Forte, a Saturday Night Live veteran, is also excellent as the forgiving son. His father is an alcoholic who never gave a shit about him, and yet he can’t help but look after him with a tenderness and patience that I found really moving.
The film says a lot about the dynamics of family relationships, from father and son to husband and wife, but also distant relatives you haven’t seen in years – who suddenly swarm in because they think you’ve struck it rich. I was impressed with all the characters, even the minor ones, each of whom left their own stamp on the film. It paints a cynical portrait of middle America, where the men of small towns have little to do except drink, while the stagnant economy leaves them with few options in life. But all of this is done with a gentle subtlety and the requisite humour so that none of it feels in-your-face or manipulative.
By the time the credits rolled, I realised I had fallen in love with Nebraska. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet film powered by wonderful characters and performances, a great script full of laughs, and a genuinely poignant story full of life’s uncomfortable truths. I think it’s director Alexander Payne’s best film yet.
4.25 stars out of 5