Review: “Nebraska” offers an absorbing journey into family life

Drew Keller, Author

A slow-paced, black-and-white movie, set in the small towns of the Great Plains and filled with the elderly may seem to be as irrelevant to California high schoolers as a film can get. However, the central story of “Nebraska” – an uplifting tale of redeemed dignity, convincingly penned by Bob Nelson – is universal and appealing enough to be relatable to all.

The film, directed by Alexander Payne, centers on the aging Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his adult son David Grant (Will Forte). Woody, tricked by an advertising scam into believing he has won $1 million, defiantly attempts to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings despite the disparagement of his family. Woody’s wife Kate (June Squibb) and other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) want to put Woody in a nursing home, but David, stuck in a dead-end job and coming off of a breakup, agrees to drive his father to Lincoln. The ensuing road trip forces Woody to reflect on his life and reveals to David unsuspected elements of his father’s past.

The movie’s greatest asset is perhaps Bruce Dern, who has already won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Woody. Dern’s performance perfectly depicts the combination of frailty and determination required to make his character believable and empathetic, and meshes particularly well with that of Will Forte. For his part, Forte avoids making his character too heroic; instead, he projects an unsure, almost self-deprecating attitude that keeps David Grant relatable.

Another defining characteristic of the film is the fact that it is filmed entirely in black-and-white. While surprising for a modern movie, director Alexander Payne’s artistic choice actually works well in “Nebraska.” The monochrome serves two main purposes. First, it accentuates the bleak Midwestern landscapes that permeate the movie, turning them into a gray background that focuses attention on the characters. Second, the lack of color ties in to the film’s preoccupation with aging and the past.

It is this preoccupation that has led many to label “Nebraska” as nostalgic, but the film never seems particularly gloomy. In fact, aided by moments of humor (especially in the second half), the movie seems to keep an upbeat focus on accepting the past and moving on to new possibilities. The humor also helps alleviate the movie’s sometimes admittedly slow pace. At less than two hours long, the film’s short length also keeps the pace from becoming too irritating.

The movie has garnered six Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (for Payne), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (for Dern), Best Supporting Actress (for Squibb), and Best Cinematography. It certainly deserves this recognition, though it probably is not at the very top of any of these categories, and is not favored to win any of them by critics.

“Nebraska” may not be the most creative or the very best movie of the year. However, thanks in large part to its straightforward dialogue and impeccable acting of its stars, it succeeds in making the lives of its rural, geriatric characters understandable. The film’s blend of solemnity and comedy make it a bittersweet movie well worth watching.


1 hour, 50 minutes

Rated: R for some language.

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb