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Photo by Merie Wallace - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation

Nebraska doesn’t look, sound or feel like any other movie I’ve seen this year—and not just because it was shot in widescreen black & white. Like all of Alexander Payne’s films, from Citizen Ruth to The Descendants, it has a distinct atmosphere and singular point of view; that’s obvious from the first shot onward. Working from an original screenplay by Bob Nelson, Payne introduces us to characters we rarely see onscreen: real people who are utterly ordinary. Some are endearing, others eccentric, but all of them are genuine, like the irascibly stubborn old-timer played so well by Bruce Dern. He’s convinced that he’s won a million dollars in a mail-order sweepstakes and insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings. Instead of arguing, his luckless but good-natured son (equally well played by Will Forte) decides to humor him. Their road trip forms the centerpiece of the picture.

Payne has a Fellini-like eye for great faces, and Nebraska is full of them, in roles both large and small. They enrich an acutely observant comedy about life’s promises and disappointments, and the incongruity of family dynamics. I defy you to find a more poignant or appealing actress onscreen this year than Angela McEwan; she’s simply perfect as a small-town newspaper editor who knew Dern’s character as a young man. Payne and his casting director spent a full year searching for, and finding, people like this; no wonder Nebraska feels special, and so different from other American films.

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Photo by Merie Wallace - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Corporation

Payne also has the confidence to allow Nebraska to unfold at a leisurely pace. I liked it the first time I saw it, but I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing, when I knew where it was headed and could relax, savoring every incident on its winding road to a satisfying conclusion.

Every contribution to this film is harmonious, from Phedon Papamichael’s fresh, black & white cinematography to Mark Orton’s evocative score. Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk, and feisty June Squibb head a first-rate supporting cast, while Bruce Dern gives the subtlest and richest performance of his long career. Nebraska is offbeat and low-key, which means it won’t appeal to every moviegoer, but I consider it a gem.