Nebraska

Nebraska is one of the year’s best movies and Bruce Dern gives one of the year’s best performances. Huge credit goes to screenwriter Bob Nelson and director Alex Payne for their story, their characters and their settings.

If you’ve ever heard or read about Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, or if you have spent time in a rural plains community, you’ll recognize many of the people and places in Nebraska.

Hawthorne, the town in Nebraska where much of the movie takes place, has both Lutheran and Catholic churches, plenty of bars and large plots of farmland surrounding the town. It’s the hometown of Woody Grant (Dern) and his wife Kate (June Squibb). They live in Billings, Montana now.

The journey to Nebraska begins when Woody gets a letter in the mail naming him the winner of a million dollars. He wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash it in. Woody’s son David (Will Forte) finally agrees to drive his dad from Billings to Lincoln. After an accident slows them down, they decide to stop in Hawthorne and spend the weekend with Woody’s brother and his family.

Kate and David’s brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk) also head over to Hawthorne and a family reunion of sorts gets underway. Old memories are recalled. Will runs into his former business partner and town blowhard Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) who stirs up old turmoil. David learns things about his family that he never knew.

A favorite scene is a cemetery visit where tombstones elicit memories of past family members, friends, lovers and enemies. (I lived a version of that scene in my own life in 2009 with a visit to Gully, Minnesota, where my father-in-law and many more of my wife’s relatives are buried.) A visit to the old abandoned homestead brings back memories, some unhappy, for Woody.

Nebraska has several side characters that add spark to the film, especially David’s two cousins who are hilarious. Woody’s brother Ray, incidentally, is played by Rance Howard, father of Ron “Opie” Howard.

Director Alexander Payne shot Nebraska in black and white, which is perfect for showcasing a town that probably looks about the same as it did 50 years ago. He punctuates the film with lingering shots of plains landscapes, which communicate the sense of being in the middle of nowhere.

Dern won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and is a likely candidate for an Oscar nomination. His character appears to be simple, but is revealed to be complex, with demons and resentments that have haunted him for a lifetime. Dern should be ever grateful to Payne and Nelson for handing him such a wonderful role, especially at this point in his life. He’s 77.

84-year-old June Squibb brings spunk to her role as the wife who has endured much during her marriage to Woody. She should also be mentioned in awards conversations.

Nebraska is engaging on many levels, but mainly for capturing true human emotion. I highly recommend you see this film and, if they’re still around, take your parents and grandparents.

“Young Adult”—(Grow Up, Already!)

The lead character in “Young Adult” is not especially likable. The movie, though, has a lot to like.

We all know people who have moved from a small town to a big city, enjoyed some career success and felt somehow superior to those back home. When they return home, they are sometimes amazed to see folks who are satisfied with their simple small town lives.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis. She’s a divorced writer of young adult novels who leaves Minneapolis to return to her small hometown in outstate Minnesota. Turns out she was a bit of a jerk to most of her classmates in high school. She is not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

Her goal is to reunite with her old hometown boyfriend who is now married and a new dad. She also encounters the class nerd at a bar in the hometown. Patton Oswalt gives an award-worthy performance as the nerd, who becomes a drinking buddy of Mavis.

Another character in the movie is the fictional small town of Mercury, Minnesota. Unlike Garrison Keillor’s fantasy Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, Mercury has undergone the same transformations many American small towns have experienced. Diablo Cody wrote the script and offers commentary on the fast food chains that dominate the main drag and the attitudes of those who live in Mercury, either by choice or lack of choice.

There are some good laughs in “Young Adult.” Charlize Theron, not exactly known for comedy, can bring it.

The movie also serves up a memorable and seriously flawed character in Mavis. Will you feel sorry for her or will you feel she deserves all her fates? That’s for discussion on the way home from the movie.

The movie is directed by Jason Reitman of “Up in the Air,” “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” fame. He again delivers a trademark cool title sequence. “Young Adult,” like those listed, is funny, but also shares viewpoints on modern American life that stay with you after the credits roll.