Bob Nelson’s first splash in the world of cinema was a big one. Director Alexander Payne was asked to find a director for Nelson’s original screenplay “Nebraska”. Payne was so impressed with the script he petitioned to direct the film himself. “Nebraska” would go on to receive six Academy Award nominations including one for Nelson. Not a bad feature film debut.
“The Confirmation” is Nelson’s second feature length screenplay and his directorial debut. Much like with “Nebraska”, Nelson grounds “The Confirmation” in no-nonsense, real world drama and just the right amount of dark humor. In many ways this story feels familiar, but there is an unglossed earnestness to every dramatic detail and a genuine, raw emotional undercurrent that makes it strikingly unique.
Clive Owens (one of the most underrated actors working today) plays a down-on-his-luck carpenter named Walt. Since his divorce Walt has struggled to make ends meet as an independent construction contractor. He can’t find a job and his wife Bonnie (Maria Bello) has threatened to revoke his visitation rights to their son Anthony (Jaeden Lieberher) if he doesn’t get his drinking under control.
Bonnie asks Walt if he can keep Anthony for a night while she and her husband Kyle (Matthew Modine) go on a church couples retreat. Walt agrees and the story follows their eventful 24 hours together. It revolves around a box of tools stolen from Walt’s truck. The two set out around town to find them encountering a motley assortment of people along the way. Most importantly it offers Walt and Anthony a much needed opportunity to reconnect.
While Walt is a major player it could be said this is a story about Anthony and his head-on collision with real life. Nelson shows us so much of the film through Anthony’s eyes. The movie starts with him at confession unable to list a single sin. He truly is a good boy but while navigating an array of moral gray areas with his father Anthony breaks nearly every commandment. This opens him up to the realities of the world and also of himself.
This is Lieberher’s second father/son movie of 2016. He was alongside Michael Shannon in the superb “Midnight Special”. Both roles require a very specific demeanor which Lieberher has no trouble with. He also maintains a wonderful rapport with Clive Owen. There is a striking similarity between the two performances. Both are authentic and unobtrusive, never relying on artifice or show.
Perhaps my greatest compliment for Nelson is this – every second we spend in his film feels like we are in the real world. Nothing feels fabricated. Nothing feels manipulative. It’s impressive because so many filmmakers could take this same concept and fill it to the brim with sappy melodrama and overblown sentimentality. Nelson is smarter than that and his movie reflects it.