My most anticipated movie of the year, Nebraska, is a black and white movie about a father and son traveling across Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska to claim a spurious one million dollar prize. High anticipation is risky for a movie-goer. Very few movies manage to live up to their marketing, much less my imagination of how good they might be.
Nebraska‘s director, Alexander Payne’s last film, The Descendants, was my favorite movie of its year. To this day, it’s the only movie that can make me cry when I simply think about it. I’ve never seen forgiveness, how much it’s needed by the forgiver, how difficult it is to give, and how messy it all can be depicted so genuinely. (It also helps that the movie and its key scene features my favorite actress, Judy Greer.)
I was also excited for Nebraska, because it sees Alexander Payne returning to his native Midwest for the first time since About Schmidt after his trips through California’s wine country in Sideways and the Hawaiian islands in The Descendants. I love driving through the Midwest, and I was looking forward to another road trip with Alexander Payne.
Payne exhibits a strong sense of place in all his films. His characters are people shaped by the place they live or are visiting. He also frequently casts and features older actors, people whom you can believe have been in their places long enough to be shaped by them. Though his characters travel, the places they go, while beautiful in their own ways, are never as idyllic as they imagine, and they eventually return home now better able to appreciate where they are from. (This constant dynamic is perhaps never better seen than in his segment of Paris, je ‘taime, in which a woman who has always dreamed of visiting Paris does so, enjoys it as a tourist would, and then is happy to go home in the end.)
My anticipation was justified. Nebraska proves true to Alexander Payne’s previous form. The movie is funny, touching, and genuine, with a strong sense of place and awash with that flavor of hopeful melancholy I resonate so strongly with in Payne’s other, post-Election movies. Nebraska is one of my favorite movies of the year (even if it isn’t quite the masterpiece The Descendants is, in my opinion).
(Aside – I’d give about anything for Payne to be given the helm of the upcoming adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s memoir about two old friends hiking the Appalachian Trail. The screen adaptation has been written by Michael Arndt of LIttle Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 fame. Payne’s producing partner, Albert Berger, produced Little Miss Sunshine as well, so the connection between Payne and Arndt should be established. Payne seems like a perfect fit to me. Alas, Payne isn’t connected to the project. I can’t always get what I want.)
Payne’s sense of place coupled with his melancholic sense of humor is the most difficult thing about his movies. It’s easy to see his films as making fun of the people and places they depict. I think that is an arrogant and simplistic way to view his films. Payne has stated numerous times that he isn’t making fun of the real people his films feature or the places they live. I think we have to take him at his word and try to to see what he might be showing us instead.
If you’re from a large city on either of America’s coasts (where Payne’s films are most popular), it’s convenient to laugh at his characters. They’re different than you. They behave different than you. They value different things than you do. If you live on the West coast, his characters represent what you or your parents or grandparents left behind when your family likely migrated to to West coast during the last century.
In Nebraska, the extended family at the center of the story sits around watching football barely saying anything to one another. Neighbors who haven’t seen each other for decades speak briefly through car windows, their conversation punctuated by a quick “goodbye” as if they have very little to say to one another. Friends remember minor offenses and minor graces in minute detail. They mention long-dead relatives as if they died yesterday. Dilapidated houses are still home to parents’ disciplinary threats and sibling rivalries. “Once upon a time” still shines in the eyes of lovers unrequited yet content across decades. Little is spoken. Much is said.
Never mistake silence for stupidity. Never mistake staying put for an absence of ambition. Never mistake regret for discontent or realism for unhappiness.
The characters in Nebraska are flooded with history. They are inundated with the place they have lived, and it is inundated with them. Their identities are deeply rooted and fixed. They need not constantly reaffirm themselves, vie for placement, grapple for esteem. It is theirs because they are there, because they belong to each other and to the place that connects them. They live on long after they are gone in the memories and myths handed down to others in that place.
Sometimes, Payne’s characters are tragic and tragically humorous. Aren’t we all? Ultimately, they are triumphant for no other reason than because they persist in their quests, in their love for one another, and in the places where they belong.