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Some might suggest that purpose of watching a film is to identify with the characters–to get caught up in the story. Sure, there are times when a director or writer wants us to loathe a character, usually in order to make some moral or cultural statement about human hypocrisy, but more times than not it seems we’re supposed to connect with what’s happening up on the screen. This past week my wife and I watched the film Nebraska–the story of an elderly man who thinks he’s won a million dollars and makes his son take him to Lincoln, NE to collect his winnings. It’s a beautiful film, shot in black and white, showing the simple–yet harsh–landscape of the Great Plains. The characters are just as simple and harsh. The old man’s wife is a ball-busting, no nonsense, woman who thinks the idea is ridiculous. (At one point in the story she hikes up her skirt in the cemetery to show the gravestone of a former boyfriend what he missed out on.) The journey from Montana to Nebraska is centered around family and identity. The son learns things about his cantankerous father that he didn’t know–revealing insight into his father’s mysterious and maddening ways. The story ends with a touching picture of empathy and grace…but that’s not why the film has stuck with me. Watching this film–and my wife can attest to this–was like watching a home movie of my extended family.
Living in places like Sioux County, West Michigan, or any version of North American suburban paradise, can lead to a severe case of “family envy”. What I mean is this: Most people seem to have it all together. Just check your facebook feed…perfect facebook families, with perfect facebook children, and all around perfect facebook lives. Deep down I think we know that this “normal” life is unattainable, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. I remember trying to make sense of my own family experience–it didn’t quite fit the mold. My extended family on both sides is quite matriarchal, but not in a feminist way, it’s more like a ball-busting, blue collar, way. My family is working class, they like to watch TV, they use vulgarity and take the Lord’s name in vain (in very creative ways, mind you), and overall they lack sentimentality. I’ve been a part of the Dutch Reformed clan now for almost 17 years–I married in. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife’s family, the emphasis upon cleanliness, and the almond pastries are delightful. But I couldn’t help getting a bit nostalgic–and even teary–watching Nebraska. It’s an honest picture of family relationships where romantic notions about having children and finding one’s soul mate give way to the carnal desire to make it “around the bases.” In one scene the son asks, “So you and mom never talked about whether you wanted kids or not?” To which his dad replies, “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d end up with a couple of ya.”
Nebraska isn’t a picture of the ideal family, but it’s beautiful none the less. I think we could all use a good dose of reality from time to time. After all, Christianity isn’t about living in some fantasy facebook world, it’s about living gracious and charitable lives in the midst of this beautifully harsh existence.