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“He just needs something to live for,” says David (Will Forte) of his father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who’s hellbent on taking a road trip from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. David knows the prize is bogus, but he knows that his elderly dad — crotchety, waddling, wearing a perpetual expression of angry bewilderment at a world that doesn’t make sense anymore — needs to believe it.

“Nebraska,” a wonderful not-quite-comedy/not-quite-drama from Alexander Payne (the screenplay’s by Northwest resident Bob Nelson), is the story of a father and a son, and of how they come to understand each other, just a bit, on a trip back to Woody’s roots in small-town Nebraska. But there’s nothing sentimental about this tale; Woody doesn’t have a twinkle in his eye, and he isn’t remotely lovable. Nor is his perpetually complaining wife, Kate (June Squibb), or their distracted older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk); you wonder where David, a sad-eyed man who works in an electronics store and lives a treading-water life, got his kindness.

Filmed in eloquent black-and-white (suiting the unadorned plains that Woody and David drive past; you feel the heaviness of the clouds), “Nebraska” unfolds with few words. David doesn’t know what to say to his father; the taciturn Woody offers up observations rather than conversation. (On Mount Rushmore, as they pass by: “Doesn’t look finished to me. Warshington’s the only one with any clothes.”) But you sense, in Dern’s note-perfect performance, a man looking back at a lifetime of disappointment (a common theme in Payne’s films), and wondering if that’s what his son sees, and what his legacy might be.

Nothing miraculous happens in “Nebraska,” or in Nebraska — that million dollars, as everyone but Woody knows, doesn’t materialize, and Woody doesn’t magically become a nicer guy or a better father. But it has moments of uncanny grace, made all the more beautiful by their dryness: a family, briefly, pulling together; a son suddenly understanding his father’s dream; a tiny moment, at the end, of unexpected triumph. Its final scene, both mundane and transcendent, is like a silent movie; two lives changed, however fleetingly.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com