Independent films breed Oscar gold.
Alexander Payne, the filmmaker who in years past brought us Oscar winning indie gems "Election," "Sideways," and "The Decendents," has once again proven indie power with this year's inspired effort, "Nebraska," which has been nominated in six categories: picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, actor (Bruce Dern), and supporting actress (June Squibb).
"Nebraska" is a character study wrapped in road movie. The original screenplay, written by Bob Nelson, introduces a series of entertaining and distinctly offbeat characters as we follow elderly Woody Grant on his quest from Billings, Mt., to Lincoln, Ne., to collect a suspect $1 million sweepstakes prize.
Payne again teams up with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who he worked with on "Sideways" and "The Decendents," as the duo decided to shoot Nebraska in black and white.
Black and white film helps to define the Nebraska landscapes, the small towns and small town characters, and the relationships which are explored in "Nebraska."
Payne is an Omaha native who often utilizes Nebraska locations in his films and many of the exterior shots in "Nebraska" are poetic homages to the calm, sweeping beauty of the state.
While the use of black and white film helps to set the mood and period in "Nebraska," it is the characters that bring it to life.
Payne is known as an actor's director, and he allows his cast to make inspired choices in the film. As each new scene comes along, it is inhabited by another unique character that brings something different to the screen.
Dern depicts Grant with a gritty realism that has garnered the veteran actor many well-deserved accolades this year, including an Oscar nomination. The performance is at times comedic and at others deeply soulful, but at all times is interesting to watch.
Dern's portrayal of Grant's path of discovery delivers moments of self-realization to the audience even as those moments slip past the character unnoticed. Grant desperately wants to find some value in his life, and Dern displays that desire with honesty and an inviting accessibility.
Will Forte takes a role out of his comfort zone with his turn as David Grant, Woody Grant's son and reluctant co-pilot of the sweepstakes odyssey. The SNL alumnus gives a tender performance that is endearing to watch but too understated.
As David discovers details of his father's life, he undergoes a transformation that could have been better defined by Forte – simply put, the character is likable but not memorable.
This isn't the case with Squibb's portrayal of Kate Grant, Woody Grant's long-suffering wife.
Squibb grabbed a best supporting actress nomination for this role and her Kate will be long remembered.
Kate is tough and plain-spoken and Squibb relishes the moments when her character sets someone straight without mincing any words. What makes this performance special is Squibb's ability to invite an audience inside Kate's heart, even during her brassiest moments.
Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach each give fine supporting performances, as do the rest of the supporting cast and bit players. Of special note are Devin Ratray and Tim Driscoll as Cole and Bart, Woody's nephews. The two should be prosecuted by other cast members for scene theft.
Nebraska is a simple film that has a lot to say.
The pace of the movie runs parallel to its protagonist, steadfast and unrelenting but occasionally a little slow. It is important not to lose patience during the slow moments, however, because they are followed by something sweet you won't want to miss.
Expect a charming little journey that exposes the ridiculous nature of mankind, and you won't be disappointed.