Sometimes when I talk on the phone with my mother, she’ll tell me stories of weird things my grandmother – and other elderly people she knows – has done. I’ll often laugh, and my mother will remind me, “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time.”

I couldn’t help but think of those conversations with my mother while watching Nebraska, an incredible new film by Alexander Payne. It stars Bruce Dern as an old, slightly senile Montana man who’s convinced he’s won a million dollars and Will Forte as his son David who reluctantly agrees to drive him to Lincoln, Neb., to collect it.

Dern’s performance as the stubborn, stoic and alcoholic Woody carries the film. For 110 minutes, he’s not an actor but rather the perfect embodiment of a tired, confused and sad Korean War veteran. His realistic portrayal is emblematic of a film that’s obsessed with representing what the people and places of Middle America are really like. They filmed on location in four different states, but the characters seem just as authentic as the scenery. Woody’s wife, Kate, played by June Squibb, is the sassy old woman who lost her filter years ago. As Woody and David travel back to Woody’s hometown, they encounter more old people than I can ever remember seeing on screen, people who are limpy and wrinkly and a little lumpy – decidedly not Hollywood. It feels like the film crew invaded a small town and stuck its residents in front of the camera.

The people in this film felt like people I know – David’s ex-girlfriend doesn’t look like a model, Dern’s hair sticks out at odd angles; his beard is uneven and family members sit around a television in silence, watching “The Golden Girls” while drinking beer. That realism is what enables Payne to so artfully toe the line between comedy and drama. At some of the saddest moments in the film, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity, and it keeps the film from becoming too saccharine.

Forte, best known for his humorous turns on “Saturday Night Live,” at first seemed like risky casting; how could the man best known for playing MacGruber pull off his first dramatic role? But he manages to do it with humor, brightness and a depth that I didn’t expect at all. David grounds the film, playing the straight man who notices that everyone around him is a little insane but can’t help get caught up in it all. When he and his brother Ross, played by Bob Odenkirk, pull a prank to stand up for their father, you can’t help but cheer for their childish shenanigans.

In addition to casting a comedian as his dramatic leading man, Payne took another risky move: He shot the entire film in black and white. Thus, the sweeping landscapes and open skies of Nebraska were viewed in a completely unexpected way. And it’s beautiful. Payne really takes his time with shots as well. The camera lingers on clouds, farm tools, houses and signs, exhibiting a dedication to submerging the viewer in his world.

The thing that really elevates the film is that it never makes moral judgments about its characters. Woody is an alcoholic who either took from everyone or was destroyed by how much he gave. His marriage might be loveless or, as the pair has grown, it’s full of mutual respect. David should stop enabling his father or he should support him more. He should get back together with his girlfriend or let the relationship die. The questions linger long after the film’s end, and that ambiguity makes it a lot more compelling than if good and bad were obvious. Instead, the film is concerned with what love, family and loyalty look like, at their best, at their worst and in between.

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