“Nebraska” is an unassuming film. I’ve heard it described as “bleak,” but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a little melancholy but, to me, that feels like a result of its honesty. It portrays a particular cross-section of American Midwestern culture and family life with specificity and some exaggeration for comedic effect, but it’s not mean-spirited or hopeless.
“Nebraska” loosely follows a road movie formula, instigated by Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an aging father who believes he’s won a million dollars and needs to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska (from his home in Montana) to collect the prize. His son David (Will Forte) decides to take him on the trip despite knowing the whole thing is a scam. This gives the camera an opportunity to offer breathtaking portraits of the American landscape while the personal drama unfolds. It’s clever work, because it gradually helps establish the connection between the family’s conflicts and the realities of the American Dream.
Their trip takes them through Woody’s hometown and they meet up with relatives and old acquaintances from Woody’s past. In the process, his son David discovers a different perspective on his distant, unsentimental father, learning about a lifetime of struggles and relationships that expand his one-dimensional view of the man.
Watching it reminded me of “Train Dreams,” a novella by Denis Johnson from a few years ago which also chronicles the tragedies and disappointments that make up the ordinary American life. It contrasts with the stereotypical national ideals and optimism, and “Nebraska,” like “Train Dreams,” approaches its subjects with subtlety. It’s not an angry film, but it is sobering.
The greatest strength of “Nebraska” is its commitment to its characters, who are wholly unique and painfully ordinary all at once. They’re complicated people, which makes them feel real and vivid. It’s a wonderful representation of the kind of deeper understanding that accompanies learning the stories of our parents and our communities.