This week, many of us will be back in the homes we grew up in, maybe even the same worn-out bed under the faded sports posters our parents never got around to taking down. Jumping back into these places at the holidays tends to give us somewhat jarring looks at what was once so familiar it went unnoticed.
I got that experience on a movie screen last week when I saw the critically acclaimed new film Nebraska, directed by Omaha native Alexander Payne. The plot involves Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) trip to Lincoln to claim a mythical million-dollar prize. More than once, we see Woody’s son David (Will Forte) glance at himself in the mirrors of restaurants and taverns holding down windswept corners in Woody’s hometown. The film’s entire two hours felt like such reflections for me, the product of a rural home that could’ve been Payne’s set just as easily as the areas he actually used in northeast Nebraska. (Near the film’s end, David buys a vehicle on the very lot where I purchased a Nissan 240SX in 1996.)
For most of us in the Midwest, our hometowns appear in movies so rarely that it’s a novel, revealing experience. Like hearing your voice in a recording and wondering if you really sound that strange all the time.
Payne (seen below with Dern) filmed Nebraska in black-and-white and lingers on unsentimental shots of familiar Great Plains landscapes. Foursquare farmhouses surrounded by a grassy patch that gives way to endless row crops patrolled by irrigation walkers. Shattered trees bulldozed into a jumble to clear a little more ground for planting. A hilltop cemetery shaded by tall cedars as a visiting old lady walks among the headstones asking, "Now when did HE die?"
When some of my friends around the country see Nebraska, the parts that made me howl with laughter will probably leave them baffled, the way I stare blankly at what others tell me are Woody Allen’s best gags. But to those in the Heartland, Payne’s humor is pinpoint. When David arrives in fictional Hawthorne, he’s immediately grilled by his small-town cousins over how long it took him to make the drive from Billings. They sneer when he can’t adequately explain what kind of engine is in his Subaru—a humiliation I suffered more than once in high school. One farm wife, played by an extra from around Norfolk, asks, “Are you still fixin’ hair?” even though the script read, “Are you still doing hair?”
Most of these insights would’ve been lost on me if I’d seen the film when I was younger and still living in rural Nebraska. So I probably won’t try to talk my family into seeing it when I’m home for Christmas. I’m pretty sure they’d walk out saying, “What was so funny about that?”
Photos courtesy of the film's official Facebook page. For more information on the film, visit its official website.
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