Nebraska (The Movie): Insights for Transforming Relationships

Nebraska the movie is a poignant story about a father-and-son road trip. Learn how it can transform your relationships with your aging parents.

father and son on beach

I was intrigued by Nebraska, the movie that depicts a road trip between an aging father and his grown son. This movie offers young and older adults insights into dealing with friends and family members as they age. It is especially useful for those who are dealing with a parent or friend who may have cognitive challenges associated with dementia or other diseases.

As for me and my experiences, I’m fortunate to have a dad who is charming and sharp-witted. He purposefully keeps mentally and physically active, but still is more fortunate than many his age who suffer from dementia and other diseases that rob them of the ability to think clearly and communicate effectively. My mom, for example, struggled to find the right words and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years before she died. What I’ve realized is that all people deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of disease.

So, when I see a younger person dismiss an older person’s ability or treats them disparagingly, I am troubled. Sadly, I won’t say I know precisely how to treat a parent or friend with dementia. But the Nebraska movie points me in the right direction.

Background: A road trip transforms a relationship

The movie is shown in black and white and the action is slow moving. Unless they are really sensitive to the needs of older adults, younger kids probably won’t like Nebraska. But if you are aware of the imperfections in your life that seem to worsen as you age, then you (and your kids) will enjoy this darkly comedic look at brokenness.

The film follows a father (Woody) and son (David) as they travel from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska so they can attempt to claim a sweepstakes prize. Woody has received a letter that he believes entitles him to one million dollars. He wants to walk hundreds of miles to collect his winnings. David makes a safer, though not necessarily saner, offer to drive his dad to the sweepstakes office.

Their trip includes a stop in Woody’s hometown, a small town in Nebraska. There, he visits with dysfunctional family members. He also encounters a former business partner and nemesis, who initially acts like a friend but reveals himself as self-centered and self-serving.

Circumstances may stay the same but your perspective on relationships can be altered

What intrigued me most about the movie was the subtle transformation of the relationship between father and son. They weren’t fully reconciled to each other and the past. But they learned to live with the tension between them, between harsh reality and hope, between dysfunctional and perfectly well-adjusted.

Lessons on improving and restoring relationships, gleaned from Nebraska

Becoming reconciled with family members, friends, Christian sisters and brothers is important. In Matthew 5:23-24 (World English Bible), Jesus says: “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

I believe that these words urge us to seek restoration of relationships, elevating this action above more formal acts of worship or displays of religiosity.

Here are ideas on how to make this happen:

Don’t marginalize people who are not like you

This film delivered the one thing I expected: you can interact with a friend or family member who suffers from dementia or a similar disease in a way that protects them without marginalizing them.

Though initially frustrated at his dad’s irrational thinking that he is a million-dollar sweepstakes winner, David makes the decision to take the trip with his father to claim the prize. He senses that his father is as much lonely and frustrated as delusional, and could benefit from the hope and adventure that a road trip provides. Instead of constantly condemning Woody for his current problems and past failures (like his mother and brother), David accepts his dad’s condition and enjoys their quirky moments together. Along the way, he strives to protect his father from his predatory family and past friends without challenging his sense of self.

Interestingly, the film takes the concept of marginalizing other people a step beyond the usual parent/child or older-adult/younger-adult conflict. A few disturbing yet funny scenes show David’s cousins (one of whom is a registered sex offender) ridiculing him for his relative normalcy. This aspect of the story reinforces the idea that we often look down on other people simply because they are different, not because their behavior is deviant.

There are multiple perspectives to every situation

We often think we know everything about a person or situation, whether we’ve heard their life stories or not. But we can become more accepting and compassionate if we learn about their struggles growing up and navigating adulthood.

As David gets reacquainted with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, and meets some of his father’s contemporaries, he starts to see his dad’s life story from a fresh perspective. In one scene, details about his parents emerge through a conversation with one of Woody’s ex-girlfriends. David discovers that his father has nearly always had faulty judgment and misplaced trust. These problems seemed to have been caused or worsened by the trauma of the Korean War.

These revelations help David grasp that his father’s shortcomings and difficulties resulted from many issues, not simply failures associated with his alcoholism and shortsightedness.

You either brighten or darken someone’s day

I used to think that most of my actions were neutral in terms of their impact on other people. Some may have been positive, and generally those outweighed the negative. Based on insights from this film, though, I realize that there are two ways to affect other people: good or bad.

Nearly all of the interactions that Woody had with his family and former colleagues affected him negatively. David realizes that his parents left their hometown to distance themselves from these circumstances. Sadly, though, the impact on his father’s self-image remained.

Being kind and treating people fairly can influence them for many years or even a lifetime. Sure, they can control their reaction to what other people say or do. But many have difficulty recovering from assaults on their character and self-esteem, especially if there are no supporting characters in their lives.

Stop trying to change people for a better future, just enjoy them now

The one thing you (hopefully) learn from having a parent with a mind-wasting disease is that you need to enjoy people and moments, as they are. For example, one person I knew still enjoyed taking walks, doing water aerobics, and visiting with friends and family even when she couldn’t recall names. Another person tells me that despite Alzheimer’s, a parent loves cutting the grass; joy comes from a yard well tended.

Through these experiences, I have come to understand better what Jesus meant when he said: “Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” (Matthew 6:34, World English Bible). I’ve learned to apply these words to living more fully in the present. I’ve also found that my interactions with those who have dementia has led to greater delight because I appreciate a simple exchange, not fret about what might happen in the future.

In the film, David comes to terms with the fact that his father’s financial situation won’t get better or his condition, improve. The purpose of their journey is to spend time together, reveling in the good and not-so-good times. In the end, David gives his father a cherished moment. When the son delights in the father’s happiness, you can see that David has allowed himself to be changed by accepting his dad, not trying to fix him.

If you want to feel more joyful around older adults, take a evening to watch Nebraska.

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