“Nebraska” is a father and son bonding movie, but it’s definitely not about a father unschooling his son. The father here, Woody Grant, is an alcoholic Korean war veteran from small-town Nebraska who tells his adult son that he never talked about wanting kids and just liked “screwing.” A theme of the whole movie is the white family culture of not talking about much at all, let alone about relationships.
Instead of a father unschooling his son, it’s the adult son of an aging father who practices unschooling principles. To me this felt like an unschooling movie through and through. Even though, and maybe because, the movie so vividly focuses on the terrifying white family culture of not talking about anything.
Woody’s sister-in-law, for example, doesn’t talk much about how her two sons were convicted of sexual assault, and just says it’s great they’re doing community service. All the other elderly white women just nod their heads, agreeing. At a different point, we learn that Woody had an affair with a Native woman “down on the reservation.” These two points indirectly, and inadequately, link white family silence to sexual violence against Native women. I wish there had been more about this, considering the urgency of colonialist violence (head over to this database project to learn more). Even among the all-white characters of the movie, white silence leads to many lives being destroyed.
The adult son, David’s, relationship to his father Woody stands in stark contrast to this culture of colonialist, soul destroying silence. They give us a deep, relational starting point for restructuring colonialist white family silence via kindness, listening, and self-reflection on power dynamics.
**Spoiler Alert: Total spoiler for the whole movie from here.**
First, you have to look at the power relationship between the father and son. The father starts the movie, walking doggedly down unsafe sections of rural highway, determined to walk from Billings MT to Lincoln NE (that’s 800 miles) to claim his prize money, because a magazine subscription marketing company sent him a letter saying he may have a winning number. Throughout the movie, he’s depicted as addled and childlike. His wife constantly belittles him in this way, but even David, the son trying to help his dad, wavers between seeing his dad as in early stages Alzheimer’s or seeing him as someone who “has always believed what other people tell him.” It’s clear in the end the dad has always had a generous and kind spirit and has been exploited by many people along the way. He’s determined, but nearly powerless at this point other than by rebelling with his feet, and being protected by white male privilege that allows him to walk down the highway and be greeted as “pal” by the police.
Facing his dad’s rebellious devotion to a fantasy, the son David–who is trying to change his life by eating healthy and drinking less–decides to shift gears. He stops yelling at his dad that he’s an idiot for believing the letter, and decides to take him to Lincoln. This is his first act of listening and kindness with his dad. He may not understand, but he’ll help.
They stop along the way in Hawthorne NE, Woody’s hometown, where David gets a peek into his father’s history. Half the people in town exploit Woody’s generosity. Half of them are kind, but step out of the way and don’t get involved, letting the old man get nearly trampled by some cruel people. At one point, David’s cousins–the same ones who’ve committed sexual assault–mug him and his dad to steal the letter, and then drop it in the street realizing it’s a fake. David tries to convince his dad losing the letter is for the best, then gives in and goes out in the middle of the night to search the street for his dad’s prized letter.
At that point I realized: this is what I do every day. All day. I participate in wild fantasy, I take emotional pain seriously even when it seems to me to be so tenuously linked to reality, because I have respect for my kids. Because I want to get to know them. Because I have power over them but I don’t condescend to them. I don’t pretend to know them better than they know themselves. Because I respect their emotions, and it’s my job as an unschooling parent to support them on their journey. Because I want to learn more about them.
Eventually, through learning and participating in his dad’s journey, however misguided it may be, David learns a lot. He may not have a close, loving relationship with his dad, but he gets to know his dad, and is able to be kind and bring joy into the man’s life. He learns his dad has been cheated again and again by people in his hometown. And he learns that all his dad wants in life is a new truck and an air compressor. Woody can’t drive, and he doesn’t do work anymore that involves an air compressor. But he’s wanted these things his whole life. So when the number on his letter doesn’t turn out to be the winning number, and the woman in the marketing office sends them off with just a free hat, David goes out and buys his dad a new truck and an air compressor.
That is unschooling. David has a lot of power over his dad throughout the movie, and his dad is rebellious, defiant, fantastical, and inexplicable. But David listens, “indulges,” is kind, and joins his dad on the journey. Literally. When his dad triumphantly drives the new truck with an air compressor in the back through his old hometown, with David ducked down hiding in the passenger seat, you can see the smiles on the two men’s faces. I think it’s the first time either of them smiles.
After the movie was done, I was trying to get my toddler to get in bed to snuggle and wind down for the night. He has been bringing more and more things to bed, I think to have a sense of control over the process. He’s two and a half. So this time, we brought five empty snack bowls. I didn’t want to carry all those messy bowls in bed, but I did. Not because I didn’t have energy to fight him, but because it didn’t hurt anything, and it was important to him. And I can join him in that feeling of importance, listen, recognize his needs, and learn about him, becoming closer along the way.