The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska

maureen


Director Alexander Payne says he shot Nebraska in black and white because “this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white.” Modest and austere is a good description of the settings and characters in Nebraska. The word I think of is “real.” It was so real that filming it in black and white actually helped distance me from the stark reality of aging portrayed in the film.

The film begins with Woody, an elderly man in early stages of dementia shuffling down the road with one of those “you may be a winner” promotional letters, determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Since he can’t drive anymore, he’s just going to walk. 76-year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody with authenticity and understatement. Woody isn’t a joke or a villain. He’s an average small-town retiree who is frequently grumpy, drinks too much, and has typical relationship issues with his wife and grown sons. Aging hasn’t made him this way, he’s always been this way. With aging the filters deteriorate so that we become more obviously the people we already are.

Woody’s practical, outspoken wife Kate, his successful son Ross, and non-so-successful son David are real human beings struggling to deal with the effect of aging on family dynamics. Woody’s irrational behavior and unsteady reasoning make it hard for Kate to live with him. She, in turn, keeps calling her sons for help with their dad, which is disruptive to their lives. Like so many families, this family is having to make some dreaded “decisions” about dad, who always before had the autonomy to decide things for himself. It’s a frustrating and painful time for any family whose lived through this. Watching Nebraska is like walking through it with friends or neighbors. The emotions and situations are absolutely spot on.

Younger son David, who is between jobs offers to take his dad to Lincoln in hopes that he’ll stop fixating on the letter once it’s clear he’s not a winner. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad. Their road trip involves a series of little episodes that are sometimes amusing and often frustrating for David. They spend a weekend in Woody’s hometown where old wounds and rivalries are rekindled. Thinking he actually won some sort of sweepstakes, Woody’s relative and old friends embrace Woody as a celebrity and possible benefactor. Kate and Ross join David and Woody for a family reunion and a revealing walk through Woody’s childhood home.

Throughout the movie David begins to understand and appreciate his father as a person rather than seeing him with all the labels attached. Alcoholic. Distant. Grumpy. Inconsiderate. Disappointment. Sucker. Inconvenience. Failure.

Family relationships always have baggage. By the time a parent reaches the point where a child has to step in there might be forty or fifty years worth of baggage. Imagine unforgiven offense, patterns of hurtful behavior, personality flaws, painful memories stuck to the baggage like those vintage labels on suitcases. To a great extent we define ourselves and others by those labels. If we are willing to peel off the labels we’ve placed on others because of past experiences and see who is under there, we actually create margin for change to happen in those relationships.

Nebraska gently nudged me to reminder that healing comes with forgiveness. Perspective happens when we experience someone else’s story as a participant instead of a spectator. Nebraska reveals how simply walking through an experience with another person changes the relationship. The characters don’t experience big character arcs or life-changing epiphanies. In fact, none of the characters change that much from the beginning of the movie to the end, but how they see one another does. In this film I saw a picture of the giving and receiving of grace.

 

 

 

 

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