Now aged 77, and with a film career stretching back six decades, the most idiosyncratic of actors, Bruce Dern, is once again an Oscar contender with Nebraska, 34 years after his last nomination for Coming Home (1978). How ironic that Dern's septuagenarian success - he has already won Best Actor at Cannes - should come in a film which explores the ravages and regrets of old age, albeit in a quirky and humorous way.

Dern plays Woody Grant, an addled and ornery alcoholic who receives one of those letters telling him that he has won a million dollars. Convinced he's now in the money, Woody attempts numerous escapes from his Montana home with the intention of walking to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up his cheque.

At her wits' end, long-suffering, blunt-as-you-like wife Kate (Squibb) wants to put Woody in a home, but youngest son David (Forte) takes pity on his wayward dad, pulling a sickie so he can drive him to the company's offices in Lincoln. And so begins a road-trip of family dysfunction, lessons learned and secrets revealed - in gorgeous, photo album black-and-white.

Nebraska fits perfectly with director Alexander Payne's other travelling-and-thinking comedy-dramas, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, and, just like those movies, makes sure that the laughs and lump-in-throat moments are never too far away from each other. As with much of American independent cinema (and Forte's character David behind the wheel), it's in no particular rush to get anywhere: while certain scenes are a little slow for viewers and characters, patience is ultimately rewarded.

Long celebrated for playing shifty, sneaky or downright bad, Dern is, as expected, excellent as Woody, a man who's caused plenty of hurt but who you can't help but want the best for. Silent more often than he speaks, Dern is masterful at showing the predicament of a character wandering around in their head, with the scene where Woody visits his now-derelict childhood home echoing his mental state. To make the movie even more of a must-see, Dern's performance is matched by two of his co-stars: former Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte reveals himself to be a dramatic actor of real power and nuance, while 84-year-old Squibb deserves a shot at the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and has, arguably, the line of the year.

Bring your own mam, dad, aunt or granny to savour that moment, among many others. And the next time you creak and complain getting out of bed in the morning, remember the shining examples of Dern and Squibb. Would that we would all be so feisty, if we're lucky enough to get to their age.

Harry Guerin