Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Case for Middle States

Old people.  Black and white film.  Montana.  Nebraska.

These may not sound like a winning cinematic combination.  Where are the young beautiful things?  Where is the sun, sand, surf, or dense metropolis?  

“Not here,” is the answer, and for Nebraska, this is not a problem.

Sure, I was the youngest person in the smallest room up the top of the stairs in admittedly the elderly’s favourite cinema in Wellington, the Lighthouse Petone, but I gave this film a go and was all the better for the experience – even if the more… mature people in the audience would occasionally talk as if their hearing aids were switched off. 

The film follows Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) who is convinced he has won a million dollars from a magazine sweepstake, and so decides to go to their head office in Nebraska to collect.  At first he heads off on foot to collect it, but is brought back by the police or his frustrated family.  Eventually his son, David (Will Forte), decides that the only way to get this out of Woody’s system is to take him to Nebraska himself.  On the way there, they stop in at Woody’s old home town, and revisit his past.

There’s not much to it, but there is.  It’s about small town family values and misunderstandings; about sons getting to know their fathers and how much smarter the wives are than their husbands.  It’s about exploring the past and fearing the future.  And it’s great.

Dern is incredible as Woody, but Forte as David, with his long suffering eyes and downtrodden demeanour who is the most relatable character.  And June Squibb, as Dern’s unstoppable and long suffering wife, gets the choicest and dirtiest lines of them all.  

The black and white makes Midwest small town America look a depressing place to be, making the earth seem cold and dead rather than green (or even brown), and the fact everyone is wrapped up like midwinter (though there is no snow I saw) makes the scenery even bleaker and colder.  Harsh times have befallen the smaller towns, as with everywhere, and as the film focuses on the older generation, most seem relatively comfortable with their lot and make the most of things. 

But there is a darker side to life, some laced with humour, and there are revelations and emotions, not all of which are actually dealt with but all of which are handled with a natural sense of realism.

It’s hard to write a great deal about this film as there is really not a lot to it – well, not a lot if I want to steer away from spoiling anything.  It is funny; it is sad; and it also makes all of its characters relatable and understandable, if not always likeable.  And it is great seeing an older cast filling most of the roles, though not everyone is quite up to Dern’s level of acting competence.

Nebraska was a wonderful way to spend two hours, though I suppose, considering its subject matter, its black and white nature, and its small story, that few people will get the chance to enjoy it.

Verdict: Nebraska came along at the right time and left a warm fuzzy feeling in my Midwest.  I thought Dern and Forte were both incredible, Squibb a firecracker (as it were), and the whole film left me feeling, if not uplifted, definitely contented.   9 compressors out of 10.

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