By Sally Gracie
I came to Lincoln, Neb., to visit David and Kate for Thanksgiving, and before even checking out the building boom taking place near the Haymarket, or shopping for Thursday’s feast, I insisted that we go to the Grand Theater to see the just-released film Nebraska.
Both Alexander Payne, the director, and screenwriter Bob Nelson have Nebraska ties. Payne is from Omaha; Nelson was born in South Dakota but his parents and extended family all were from nearby Hartington, in northeast Nebraska.
Nebraska was filmed in Norfolk and several other communities in northeastern Nebraska and they become Hawthorne, the fictional hometown of many of the characters.
As the lights dimmed and the movie began, it took a minute to adjust to the film’s black-and-whiteness.
An old man (rather scruffy), walks (stumbling a bit) along the side of a highway overpass. A road sign behind him says “Billings.” A cop pulls up to question the man. “I’m walking to Nebraska to get my million dollars,” the old man tells the cop.
Cut to a police station where his son has come to take his father home.
In the first minutes, we are introduced to Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his younger son David (Will Forte). David finds there is no reasoning with his father, and he agrees to take off time from work to drive Woody to Lincoln although he knows his father will be disappointed when he, too, understands that the sweepstakes prize is an illusion. The two men are central to the road trip from Billings to Nebraska that will take Woody back to his roots and David closer to understanding the man who is his father.
There are many reasons to see this film, but I wanted to see it right away because Methow Valley News Editor Don Nelson had told me that he is Bob Nelson’s older brother and that there might be some autobiographical elements in the film. So I was curious.
Whether David’s brother Ross Grant’s character is based on our Don Nelson is something the two Nelson brothers and their mom Jean Wilson, who was an extra in the movie’s karaoke scene, will have to settle. Bob Nelson does say in interviews that his father influenced him as he created Woody’s character.
According to Bob Nelson (interview at cinemablend.com), this is the first film Payne has done without also doing the screenplay (which Payne wrote for About Schmidt, The Descendents and Sideways), and the Nebraska project has been 10 years in the making.
Bob Nelson describes his screenplay as a “dramedy” and the term seemed to accurately describe the audible sniffling and laughter from the theater audience.
Kate was crying as the film ended. She told me later that she saw her own family’s history in Woody and David’s. Her family on both sides is from Loup City, which was not so different from Hawthorne, where Woody visits the abandoned house where he grew up.
When Kate’s family’s homestead was sold, Kate was 13. She remembers finding one of her mother’s drawings; her mom found her marching band boots. At his Hawthorne home in the film, Woody looked wistfully at a baby’s broken crib.
We all laughed, too, as you will. Bob Nelson’s lines are often genuinely funny.
Nebraska – the place, the story, the people – is one of those films that will stay with you for a while.