In the movie "Nebraska," elderly Woody Grant believes that he's a millionaire. He believes this because he receives a letter from a sweepstakes company, which states that he's won a million dollars. Several times he sets off walking from his home in Billings, Montana, only to be intercepted and returned home. Finally, his son David takes time off work to drive him to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the company that runs the sweepstakes is located.
Why drive to Nebraska, you ask? Well, you wouldn't trust the post office with a million dollars, would you?
All the way, David tries to get his father to see sense. He argues repeatedly that Woody hasn't won a million dollars. But Woody believes, and because he's hoping for a final chance to understand his father, David puts up with all of Woody's idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, his father knocks open his head during a fall, which necessitates a night in the hospital, and thus somewhere to spend the weekend, as the sweepstakes company won't reopen until Monday. The two end up staying with Woody's brother, in Woody's hometown, where later that weekend, David's older brother and mother join them. The rest of the movie largely takes place there, and by meeting his relatives, and the people he grew up with, we (and David) learn more about this quiet, elderly man.
If you've undergone a similar situation with a relative, then you may find "Nebraska" uncomfortable to watch. At times, I suspect most viewers will squirm in their seats. The movie addresses how well-meaning (and not so well-intentioned) relatives and friends treat the elderly. It reminds us how we often expect rewards for our kindnesses to others, while forgetting all the kindnesses they have paid us. Gradually, we get to know Woody, who never says much, and who refuses to relinquish a few desires that make no sense to others. We also learn why his wife fell in love with him, why she found it necessary to drag him away from his hometown, and why it's so important to him to collect that million dollars.
The Black & White photography in "Nebraska" focuses on the characters, instead of letting us get distracted by the scenery. The music enhances their isolation from each other, as well as what occasionally draws them together. The story takes us on a journey into our regrets, our hopes, our confusion, our pain, and how we interact with others. While it's often humorous, the movie is also quiet and reflective, as this little snippet of conversation toward the end of the film reveals:
"Does your father have Alzheimer's?" a woman asks David.
"No. He just believes what people tell him."
It would have been easy to have ended this film on a down note, to reinforce the skepticism of modern life. Alternatively, the filmmakers could have opted for a miraculous ending, presenting us with a pleasant fantasy that rewarded Woody's unrealistic belief. Instead, this character-driven film ends by allowing both David and Woody to forge their own victories. David's heart-warming decision makes him a winner. And Woody's suggestion (which David graciously grants) allows others to look up at this confused, elderly man. Some of them, for the first time in their lives, regard him with expressions of awe.
And David, the son who really wanted to understand his father? He wears a smile.