A Film to Help Children Discover Their Parents

in 24th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Kristína Kúdelová

When your parents are getting very old, it may have a devastating impact on you. All these slightly senile ideas of theirs may make you feel nervous, furious, exhausted, may make you laugh bitterly or pray to God that it will finally stop.

But wait – maybe it is not as bad as you think. Maybe there is still something they can surprise you with. At least this is what Swedish audiences learned from Nebraska, a beautiful film by American director Alexander Payne screened at the Stockholm International Film Festival (November 6-17).

It is quite extraordinary how simple its story is. Eighty-something Woody from Montana believes he has won a million-dollar prize in a marketing campaign and is willing to cross two states down to Nebraska just to pick it up. On foot, of course, because his driving license has already been taken from him.

That is why his son David is desperate. He understands that the letter Woody got is just a scam and he can see what nonsense this trip to Nebraska would be. But finally, he accepts the absurd situation and decides to help his father by driving him there. What if this journey could help them both? What if this journey could give them one of their last chances to spend some time together?

Does it sound familiar? Yes. It is not the first time that Alexander Payne has made a film about people in transition, being on the road. Together, or each on his own?  Well, at the beginning of the journey they are disconnected, but by its end they may connect…

Recently, one of Alexander Payne’s previous films was screened in movie theaters worldwide – The Descendants. One of the few things that we might reproach it for was its sentimentality. Now, Payne is in even better shape and Nebraska is an accomplished masterpiece reminiscent of his earlier film Sideways, for which he won his first Oscar in 2005 (best screenplay, shared with Jim Taylor).

The American director is a man of vivid intelligence and a sharp sense of humor – no wonder one gets a bit scared of him. But in the movie theater, the audience is safe. Payne may often be ironic and sometimes cynical, but he never makes fun of people in a nasty way – even if he could.

The dialogues in Nebraska are incredibly funny, situations are comical and slightly grotesque, but the feeling they evoke is close to melancholia and nostalgia. Nebraska leads to a deep experience of the beauty of life – and to an awareness of how easily we can miss the opportunity to embrace its magnificence.

Woody himself does not speak much, because he does not need to talk about life. He just humbly accepts it as it is. He does not complain, does not analyse, does not revolt. That may be why his son David tends to see him as a one-dimensional man. Happily, both Alexander Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson found a magical way to present Woody in a much more interesting light and add many more elements to his seemingly simple personality. Woody is shaped and defined by the people he sees on his way to Nebraska. Since he passes through his hometown, he meets people that have already been witnesses to his life. It is thanks to them that David can understand how his father used to be. And what an interesting man he was! In May, at the Cannes Film Festival, Bruce Dern was given the prize for best actor – surely in recognition of the way he evoked Woody’s silent secret.

Nebraska is shot in black and white, partly because the journey of the main characters is a journey into the past, and partly because this is a very contemplative film. It moves very naturally – it has the same effect as if you were watching a simple scene in a still photograph, looking through it and discovering its depth.

Nebraska is a film about old people, but is meant to be watched by their children. Nowadays, these children are probably used to another kind of film aesthetic, but Nebraska offers something out of the ordinary. Maybe it is time not to be confronted with something new, but something very old. Maybe it is time to tune in differently, to switch from one frequency to another and discover a surprising point of view. 

In Stockholm, Nebraska was screened as a part of the Open Zone section. This section is dedicated to renowned directors from around the world who recently succeeded with their films at prestigious film festivals, such as Blue is the Warmest Colour by Abdellatif Kechiche (Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), Child’s Pose by Calin Peter Netzer (Golden Bear at the Berlinale), The Notebook by János Szász (Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary), Philomena by Stephen Frears (Best Screenplay in Venice) or Gloria by Sebastián Lelio (Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlinale). These films were judged by FIPRESCI jury and its International Critics’ Prize was unanimously awarded to Nebraska. The Swedish audience had the opportunity to see this film few days before it opened in the US on the 15th of November.

Edited by Alison Frank