Cannes 2013: Nebraska Initial Reaction

Alexander Payne's latest comedy-drama keeps it in the family

Nebraska, by Alexander Payne, is the third of four American films in competition at Cannes this year and has potential to figure somewhere in the awards come Sunday. There's a lot of speculation that Spielberg and his international jury will leave the US out of the reckoning, but this obstacle could be neatly sidestepped by either a special or a joint prize (or perhaps just a special mention). Payne and the film itself are less likely to figure, but star Bruce Dern must surely be worth consideration, as is his co-star June Squibb and the whole ensemble.

In retrospect, Payne's sixth feature is perhaps a long overdue morale-booster after last year's emotionally draining Palme d'Or winner Amour. Shot in unfussy, unaffected black and white, it begins with an old man, Woody Grant (Dern), walking down a busy Montana highway. Taken in by a cop, he is picked up by his son David (Will Forte) and returned to his frustrated wife Katie (Squibb). At his parents' home, David learns that Woody – an old man slowly succumbing to dementia – thinks he has won a million dollars in a lottery and is going to state capital Lincoln to claim his winnings. David tries to persuade Woody that it's just a marketing scam, but Woody won't have it, so after his father makes several failed attempts to bolt, David agrees to drive him there.

What begins as a road movie takes a sharp turn when Woody and David break the trip by stopping off with relatives in the town of Hawthorne, where Woody and Katie met in their youth. Here, the Grant family start to encounter the ghosts of the past, not to mention the present, as the locals get wind of Woody's good fortune and try to cash in, not realising it is all a terrible misunderstanding. Which sounds like the formula for a bleak, melancholic buddy movie, but Payne's movie is much broader than that. When Katie unexpectedly joins the duo, the film finally begins to reveal itself: by turns laugh-out-loud funny, sad, wry (in Payne's traditional deadpan style) and unbelievably poignant, it skews a little older than some of Payne's previous work, but like the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska is a grown-up crowdpleaser certain to figure on this year's awards trail.

Nebraska is out in the US on December 22.