Now I understand the Oscar-friendliness of Nebraska (2013), a quiet, quirky little father-son comedy drama. Mild-mannered Montana retail clerk David (Will Forte) has a distant relationship with his crusty, alcoholic father Woody (Bruce Dern), who is growing increasingly senile and difficult to control. When Woody falls for a sweepstakes scam, he sets out for Lincoln, Nebraska – on foot – to collect his “winnings.” David can’t talk any sense into him, and eventually decides to drive Woody to Lincoln himself, if only to prove the letter is a hoax. What ensues is a Midwestern road trip that takes them through Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where David uncovers interesting details about his father’s past, and for the first time, kind of connects with him.
It’s a soft-spoken, amusing, sad little tale, anchored by a surprisingly subdued performance by Forte in a rare straight-man role. Dern is quite touching as Woody, while June Squibb provides a spirited turn as his feisty wife. The slow pace, quiet humor, elderly cast, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography do an effective job evoking the lonely backroads of white, rural Middle American stoicism. It’s a portrait simultaneously loving and a little insulting, unfortunately; like many Hollywood takes on the Midwest, it tends to talk down to the “flyover states.” That said, director Alexander Payne is evidently a native, and he does tap into something authentic. A sudued but touching film, for the most part.