Alexander Payne directed Laura Dern in 1996's Citizen Ruth, a wonderful movie about a not wholly sympathetic unwed mother, and her father, Bruce Dern, as a wandering fool in his latest film, Nebraska. Both movies are studies of distressed people, brimming with imperfections, who seem to be both indifferent to and craving compassion from others. This actually might be true for all of Payne's beautifully crafted and highly personal films -- Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants. Nebraska, shot in stunning black and white, begins in media res with Bruce Dern's codger character Woodrow Grant walking down the shoulder of a Montana highway on the way to Nebraska to pick up his million dollar sweepstake winnings. It's not immediately clear if Woody is eccentric or senile and, much to the film's credit, the question is never really answered because it doesn't matter. What is clear, however, is Woody is determined and miserable, having arrived in his twilight years with little to show for his life -- except two estranged and alienated sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odendirk) and a weary and intemperate wife, Kate (an absolutely marvelous June Squibb). Son Will agrees to drive his father to Nebraska even though he knows the sweepstake is bogus. He wants to try to connect with his old man before it's too late, but Woody is having none ofi it. The road trip, which includes breathtaking vistas of the prairies, includes a stop in Woody's hometown, the fictitious Hawthorne, Nebraska, where relatives and town locals believe their native son has indeed struck it rich. The film is both gentle and trenchant, with lovely golden threads of nuance woven through. Dern, who is 77, is terrific, and Forte, who for all intents and purposes is a television actor, brings just the right mix of youthful irritation and filial protectiveness to his part. Highly recommended.