A Filmmaker's Homecoming

in 24th Tromsø International Film Festival

by Roger Grosvold

Watching a movie from the talented and celebrated filmmaker Alexander Payne has become synonymous with a relentless and warmhearted depiction of the ups and downs of ordinary Americans. He has made it his trademark to walk unafraid into problematic and deeply human characters that tear out their truths and realizations, while they are perceived as both repulsive and recognizable.

The 24th Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway gave the festival audience in the north an enjoyable meeting with the filmmaker’s latest film, Nebraska, a warmhearted road movie with dark undertones and piquant family revelations. This was also their only chance to see it on the big screen, since the Norwegian distributor has chosen to release it straight to DVD.

Payne’s resounding return

It would have been easy for him to follow up the success of The Descendants (2011) with a huge production, with sparkling stars in the line-up. Instead, Alexander Payne goes in the opposite direction with veteran character actors in the driver’s seat. And while some critics felt Payne was about to break with his own soaring ambitions for artistry, Nebraska is a resounding return to a more natural and personal movie language.

In Nebraska, we meet Bruce Dern as Woody, who in his old age has gone from difficult to unmanageable for his family. Whether it is due to incipient dementia or just stubbornness, he has decided to claim an obviously fake lottery winning, received in the shape of a promotional letter. His youngest son David feels compassion for his old father and together they travel from Montana to Nebraska to raise the fictitious profits. On the way they stop at Woody’s ancestral city, Hawthorne, where the troubles quickly pile up as family and old friends get wind of the news that Woody has supposedly become a millionaire.

Nebraska is a very low-key, intelligent and liberating everyday relationship drama that serves up an entertaining and compelling look at conflicts between generations. The colorful and nuanced characters are embodied by talented actors across the board. One of Alexander Payne’s many trademarks is his fine nose for interpersonal chemistry, which also is the case for Nebraska. In all its simplicity, this is a human film, where the focus is always located on the people and what they hide behind their facade.

Not available on cinema

Bruce Dern is tremendous as he manages to hold the audience’s sympathies without making an active play for them. Dern barely speaks and holds the camera’s focus just with his fascinatingly oblique presence. June Squibb on the other hand is a proverbial firework as his wife, running off with scene after scene. The chemistry and contradictions between the two feel as heartfelt as those we find in a married couple who have shared a long life together for better or worse.

This is primarily a story about an existential journey, where David’s return to his parents’ hometown gives him the chance to discover his family roots, to tour through the broken remnants of his father’s life and understand the source of his feather’s neglect. Elegant in its simplicity and poetic in its message, Nebraska is largely conventional and “small”. But like David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), it bursts out of its own format and has a lot to say, conveyed effortlessly to its audience.

The only sad part for the Norwegians is that Nebraska will not be available in the cinema; instead it goes straight to the DVD market. It’s a sad reminder of how the quality movies of this type are constantly in a squeeze, being too commercial to launch support from the public, but too narrow to compete with huge Hollywood blockbusters. It remains to be seen if the decline of the movies in the middle of the scale ends up flattening film culture. In an ideal world, there should be room for works like Nebraska.

Edited by Carmen Gray