Movie review: ‘Nebraska’ — 3 stars

With some notable exceptions, movies set in the American heartland tend to regard Midwesterners as simplistic rubes living uncultured lives.

Omaha, Nebraska native Alexander Payne is one of the few filmmakers to have steadfastly resisted the stereotype over the course of several pictures set in his home state, including “Election” and “About Schmidt.”

The spare black-and-white approach draws out the heart of Payne’s new film “Nebraska,” in which a father named Woody (Bruce Dern, a surefire awards contender) and son named David (Will Forte) embark on a road trip from their Montana homes to Omaha so that they can claim a sweepstakes prize.

The movie is filled with the director’s characteristically sardonic humor, but it’s fundamentally a serious movie interested in the intricacies of the human condition, crafted in the tradition of Hal Ashby (who directed Dern to an Oscar nomination in “Coming Home”) or John Cassavetes.

The plot finds Woody and David on a heritage tour, spending a weekend in dad’s hometown on the way to the city. There, old hurts are revisited in the form of nightmarish relatives, sobering cemetery visits and start-and-stop conversations that work through the difficult relationship between father and son.

Stricken with dementia, Woody mostly sits in forlorn silence, the weight of a lifetime bearing down on him.

He’s a mystery to us, his family and everyone else.

Through stark close-ups and small revelations, the movie unpacks the puzzle. Anyone who has a difficult relationship with a close family member — in other words, just about everyone — will recognize a lot of “Nebraska.” It’s Woody and David’s story, but it could be our own.