Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne, 2013
#31, 2013 Skandies
Nebraska is the story of a senile alcoholic who receives one of those
YOU HAVE JUST WON ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!
mailings that Publishers Clearing House has been repeatedly and successfully sued over. Prohibited from driving, he sets out on foot from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to collect his promised fortune. His earnest adult son, finding over the course of several days of such attempts that the old man isn't going to let this go, agrees to play chauffeur. On the way is Hawthorne, the small Nebraska town where the father spent most of his life and the son spent his early childhood, so the son tries to make something worthwhile out of the ridiculous trip by arranging for a family reunion at his uncle's house.
This film starts off observational and gradually takes a turn toward the sentimental, which is a little disappointing but doesn't change the fact that there's a lot of good stuff in the first hour and a half or so. The sum total of my experience with Middle American family gatherings consists of (a) holiday get-togethers with my mother's adoptive family when I was a kid (up to age ten) and (b) holiday get-togethers with my then-girlfriend's family back around the turn of the century, but even that handful of evenings was enough for the scenes like the roomful of old people staring at a television and trading slow-paced chitchat about cars they'd owned 35 years earlier, while a younger guy sits in a chair off to the side and mentally counts down the seconds, to trigger deep recognition. Of course, those evenings were all spent in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, which I guess a lot of people would not consider "Middle America" — to them it's a geographical term encompassing states much farther from the ocean. But to me the phrase "Middle America" indicates places anywhere in the country that are middle-income, non-metropolitan (but including everything from rural areas up to the mid-sized cities satirized in Babbitt), and almost entirely white (which disqualifies most of the South, which was segregated but never homogenous). Which means that this status can change. For instance, Orange County, where I grew up, was once a bastion of Middle America on the Pacific coast, but by the time I moved there, that distinction was on the verge of disappearing — not because it was getting any less conservative, or any less suburban, but simply because it was starting to look a whole lot less like a 1950s sitcom. Not a whole lot of Nguyens in Leave It to Beaver. At my high school, the Class of 1970 was over 97% white, but the Class of 1990, of which I was a member, was only about 75% white (and, of course, my membership was responsible for a share of that drop). The Class of 2010 was over 75% non-white, putting OC firmly in diverse 21st-century America even as Ed Royce and Dana Rohrabacher keep winning elections.
Now consider Nebraska, part of Middle America by anyone's definition. Omaha, despite its increasing reversion to dirt roads, is holding up pretty well demographically (hi Kennedy!), and Lincoln is booming (partly due to refugees), but west of Lincoln, Nebraska is emptying out — as are the rest of the Great Plains, except for scattered places where Latino immigration or oil strikes are keeping communities alive. So when the story shifts to central Nebraska, it's not just the house where the family reunion is being held that looks like an assisted living facility — the whole town looks like that. The main characters walk into a lot of bars, and every time they do, the entire clientele is elderly. Even the few middle-aged people we encounter look old. ("That's what pig farming'll do to ya," one of the old folks chuckles.) When Nebraska started I wondered why on earth it was in black and white, but if it wasn't clear before Hawthorne, it certainly is once we reach this town full of faces that could have come out of a Dorothea Lange photo. Pattern 24 says that I'm a big fan of stories grounded in human geography, and this arch but not hostile look at a chunk of Middle America on its way out is the sort of thing I had in mind.