Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a white-haired, dodgy-hipped, almost-senile old man who gets taken in by a scam and becomes convinced that he’s won a million dollars. His son David (Will Forte) decides to humour him, and drives him to Nebraska to claim his bogus prize.
Nebraska is a rarity – a film about old people that doesn’t patronise them. It shows that a movie can be big-hearted but retain the dark edges and harsh truths of real life. There’s none of the export-friendliness of recent road movie Philomena, but there’s nonetheless a tangible sense of melancholy and warmth.
Director Alexander Payne’s love of road movies and 1970s American cinema shines through in stunning black and white, capturing a forgotten part of the USA made up of farms and bars. The film explores the economic woes of rural America, while remaining deeply personal thanks to the central relationship between father and son.
Bruce Dern deserves an Oscar for his understated performance as Woody, a character who’s worldweary and hurting, but also sparky and charismatic. Will Forte matches the abilities of the seasoned pro, almost making you forget his frankly unforgettable role as Jenna’s transvestite lover in 30 Rock. Another great comic actor Bob Odenkirk plays the other son, but it’s June Squibb as Woody’s impatient wife who gets the biggest laughs.
And there are plenty of laughs to get, as Bob Nelson’s screenplay sparkles with wit and charm despite the sometimes downbeat tone. There are moments which resemble an American version of The Royle Family, the naturalistic dialogue remaining impressively frank and funny. Combined with the performances, music and cinematography, Nebraska is a great road movie which strikes a strong balance between honesty and charm.
The first film of 2013 I saw was Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet, an irritating load of schmaltz which completely supports my ridiculous generalisation about films patronising old people. As we approach the end of the year, it’s a relief to be proved wrong, by such a big-hearted but truthful film about ageing.