The Movie Date Oscar Road Trip: Philomena/Nebraska

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The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to YA readers. Andrew is The Reading Date’s resident movie critic and this week he has a double feature review of two Oscar nominated films: Philomena and Nebraska.

In the movies, road trips are a great way for two very different people to understand and appreciate one another (think of the great late-80s pictures Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Rain Man, and Midnight Run). Recently the “senior road trip” subgenre has emerged, in which a younger person must take an aging friend or relative on a trip, as in 2012’s The Guilt Trip with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Last fall saw a couple very good examples in Steven Frears’ Philomena (based on a true story) and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.

In Philomena, out-of-work British journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) learns of an elderly woman (Dame Judi Dench as Philomena Lee) whose son was given up for adoption as a toddler. Young, pregnant, and unmarried, Philomena was forced to work at an abbey in Ireland, whose staff of nuns raised her boy while she worked in the laundry. Keen to turn her tale into a human-interest article, Sixsmith takes her to visit the abbey, but the current staff claims the records were destroyed. When the reporter learns that the child was likely sold to American parents, he insists on flying Philomena to the States to plead her case with immigration. While in Washington, D.C., Sixsmith uncovers a lead that could lead them quickly to the missing son’s whereabouts.

Coogan and Dench are, of course, wonderful as a woefully mismatched pair; at first, proud Sixsmith thinks this touchy-feely story is beneath him and barely tolerates the earnest Philomena’s chatty demeanor and awful taste in literature. But she soon exhibits the kind of courage only found in aging souls with nothing left to lose, and Sixsmith gets genuinely caught up in her cause. The discovery of the son’s remarkable existence and encounters with his loved ones create challenges that Philomena gamely accepts as she struggles with her Catholic faith. Dench imbues her character with both gentleness and strength in a moving and memorable performance.

In the film Nebraska, aging and doddering Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) has received a bogus sweepstakes letter and is determined to visit Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his million-dollar prize—even if he has to walk 832 miles to do it. To keep him safe, his concerned son (Will Forte, Saturday Night Live) offers to drive Woody all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln. En route, they decide to visit Woody’s old hometown, where his brother still lives. After drinking with the locals, Woody lets slip that he’ll soon be a millionaire, turning him into an instant celebrity. But soon friends and relatives come calling, demanding that he repay old debts with his (nonexistent) newfound wealth, and it’s up to David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk, Breaking Bad) to keep the wolves at bay.

It’s clear that director Alexander Payne really loves the desolate beauty (shot in evocative black and white) and the gentle people found in these Midwestern “flyover states.” The film’s a comedy, but it never gets laughs at what another director might portray as simple folk; rather it respects their dignity, wisdom, and kindness. Bruce Dern is so convincing in the dizzy, addled role that I had to find recent interview clips to be sure he still has his wits about him (happily he is still sharp as a tack). Forte makes a fine foil for Dern and June Squibb, who plays Woody’s wife Kate. She has a hilarious scene in a cemetery, explaining to Dave the sordid lives of Woody’s relatives buried there. Remarkably, this impossible quest results in a feel-good finale, as David understands the motivations behind Woody’s desire to be rich.

Both films are nominated for multiple Oscars, with the fine performances of Squibb, Dern, and Dench called out in particular. Though Academy Awards season is typically the time for heavy and demanding movies, these two gentle, rewarding tales go down easy. Hope you can catch one or both before Oscar night. (Nebraska is now available on DVD, and Philomena is in theaters (limited) and coming to DVD in April)

Note: Though the events of Philomena took place over a decade ago in 2003, the real Philomena Lee is still alive and well and doing press for the film.

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9 thoughts on “The Movie Date Oscar Road Trip: Philomena/Nebraska

  1. These both sound great, Andrew. Philomena intrigues me because I recently read a story about Magdalene laundries, and the second sounds good because of the location and the mix up about the money

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      I’m not sure the abbey in the film was technically running a Magdalene laundry, but it’s exactly the same idea. There’s another movie about Magdalene laundries too, 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters, that I want to check out now. The location work in Nebraska is drop-dead gorgeous and the black and white cinematography reminds me of Peter Bogdanovich’s film Paper Moon.

  2. These are on my to see list eventually. I don’t really watch the Oscars and most of the films usually aren’t my cup of tea. Both of these though seem like they have real backbone and charm.

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      Backbone and charm is a good way of putting it! They also represent great roles for seniors, who are too often portrayed as dying or incapacitated. Neither is sick; both are still physically strong and mentally capable. (Woody is not all that clearheaded, but much of that may be due to the forbidden alcohol he’s sneaking.)

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    I want to see Nebraska but missed it when it was here. I keep hoping it will make a return but, so far, it hasn’t. A friend of mine saw Philomena and liked it but described it as a “women’s movie,” and that’s kind of turned me off.

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      Philomena probably isn’t the choice for most “guys night outs,” but Steve Coogan’s presence (we see the story through his eyes) gives it a good strong male presence. His desire to turn this into a high-profile feature story makes it his quest as much as Philomena’s.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    We were actually picking between these two movies a couple weeks ago and ended up going to see Philomena. A sad, but hopeful story with lots of surprisingly funny moments. I wasn’t sure my husband would enjoy it because it did seem a little bit like a “woman” story, but no… he liked it, too. I don’t really like Will Forte, so that was my hesitation in seeing Nebraska. Maybe we’ll give it a try on Netflix at some point.

    1. wordsforthepictures says:

      Forte’s certainly a surprising choice for the role. But his presence helps keep this squarely grounded as a comedy. Much of the film consists of his character reacting comically to shocking things done by his parents and others, and he’s very good at that.

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