Family: Feature Film – Nebraska

Alexander Payne returns with another sensitive portrayal of fractured family life


As Family Week at Litro draws to a close we take a look at a cinema release that deals with issues of the family. Nebraska is about family, it is about the breakdown of it. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly, gullible father whose mind, often encouraged by drinking, has lost its footing in reality – he absent-mindedly wanders the streets and struggles to remain attentive in conversations. He is married to the strong-willed and outspoken Kate (June Squibb), and has two sons, David  (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody has won a million dollars, or so says his fake sweepstakes ticket that he has got in the post, and he must make the 750-mile journey to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David, sensitive to his father’s age and state of health, grants his father this one last wish and they embark on the journey that takes them back to where Woody grew up.

The film becomes a father-son road trip, a sentimental genre, but Nebraska is not a sentimental film. Much like the other Alexander Payne films that deal with broken families (The Descendants, About Schmidt), in place of nostalgia and sentimentality are authenticity and an exposure of characters’ errors and misjudgements that have had long-lasting repercussions. Take David, Woody’s sensitive younger son, whose mother once says that when he was a child people used to think he was a prince made of porcelain. He works a job that does not fulfill him in the least, and has just been left by his girlfriend, after a 2-year relationship, it is suggested because he can’t make a decision about her and their future. His character smacks of a man who lacked and still lacks a positive male role model in his life.

Many children hold onto the belief that their parents are infallible or omnipotent right up until teenage years when they begin to contest their parents’ authority, but for David, this was shattered at the age of 6 when Woody first offers him alcohol. There is no relationship between the two to speak of, the bond they share is more an empathy for each other’s ineptitude at life. The journey is more about David than it is about Woody, and it satisfies his need to express the unsaid things before it is too late, things that Woody is either too incapable or unwilling to hear. Along the way, he meets people from his parents’ past and hears stories that are great revelations to him, either because reticence or alcohol has prevented Woody from speaking out about them.

There is an interesting portrayal here of the generation gap that exists between fathers and sons, whereas Woody lived in a world where men were stiff and solid and suppressed the emotional sides of their lives, David has grown up at a time where men can express themselves more freely. This creates a difficult dynamic between the two. Woody can seem brutish at times, particularly when he has an intimate discussion with David over a few beers; in response to David’s personal questions, he cannot register any intention behind marrying his wife or having children, “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d have a couple of you”. However, there is a sign of tenderness behind Woody’s actions, the admittance that his desperate seeking out of the money is because he wanted to leave his children something. He represents all the ineffective fathers; the drunks, the emotionally distant, the emotionally incapable, the rarely present, those who haven’t grown up, those so wrapped up in their own lives that they forget their duties as a father, or aren’t aware that those duties exist.

The script and humour sometimes tries too hard and some of the scenes between the Grant family and their extended family is slapstick and unbelievable, showing all the stereotypes of the American hick. However, the film draws on what are important themes and explores how the modern American family survives amidst joblessness, religious divides, infidelity, alcoholism and tedium.