'Nebraska'...Where Wishes (Could) Come True

"NEBRASKA," the film nominated for six Academy Awards, offers surprising wisdom and good modeling.

Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"
Bruce Dern in "Nebraska"

This bleak comedy in black and white reflects the dismal winter landscapes mirrored in the struggling, hard-tack characters. Woody Grant, an aging, family-neglecting alcoholic is found by police walking in Billings, Montana. David, his son, rescues his father whose destination is Lincoln, Nebraska.

Woody’s goal? He wants to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize. David reads the sweepstakes letter and chides his father for mistaking a mail scam as a prize winner. Woody remains convinced. He still thinks he can collect the winnings, despite the naysaying of David and his wife’s acrid criticisms.

The misadventures of father and son en-route to Lincoln, their family and acquaintances, will get you clucking with disgust and laughter and an occasional tear in the corner of your eye. Woody’s extended family and former friends all latch onto his dream of $1 million and the vultures move in. But don't worry—I’m not going to tell you the whole story. This is a movie best experienced, before reading about it. So, make a plan to see it! If you can’t wait, I suggest you read this excellent review by my friend, Ed McNulty.

I knew nothing about the story prior to entering the theater, as is my usual preference. What surprised me most when watching "Nebraska" was remembering the wisdom of Haim Ginott, the author of Between Parent and Child, a guide Judith and I turned to often when rearing our children. Ginott offered a unique combination of compassion and boundary setting; he showed respect for a child’s feelings while setting limitations on his/her behavior.

As I recall Ginott's advice, it was: Grant them in wish what you cannot grant them in fact. For example, when our child wanted chocolate ice cream at bed time, I might have responded, “I know you really want ice cream now. I would like some too but I can’t because it might keep us from sleeping well.”

It is this gift of acknowledging the wish—but attempting to set boundaries—that David employs as he guided his prodigal father through the film. He listens to the feelings behind his father’s words, a fascinating reversal of roles but not one unfamiliar to us who care for aging parents.

David finally asks his father what he would do with the million dollars. “I’d buy a new truck and a new compressor,” says Woody. David, tenderly surprised, reminds his father he no longer has a driver’s license. Sober, somber Woody replies that he wants to leave something for his family when he passes. He wants these for them, not for himself.

He wants dignity at the end of his life. There we finally have the yearning, the feelings, the real wish stated. Behind the words is the ache of a man who knows he has failed to be who they needed and wanted him to be. He wants to leave them with a positive that he had never been able to give.

As I reflect on the movie and Ginott's advice, I can see there's real wisdom there for many of us: Sometimes, we can give them what they wish. But first, we need to slow down, listen, be present, carefully listen to the hope and ache behind the words.

Go, see this film. See if wishes come true.