Nomadland

At the Movies Blog

Director Chloe Zhao shoots movies beautifully.

A couple of years ago, writer/director Chloe Zhao made one of my favorite movies of the year — The Rider. She used real people instead of actors, telling their story involving a young rodeo star with some serious head injuries. Now Zhao has combined a couple of the best actors in the business — Frances McDormand and David Strathairn — and used real people again. 

This film has lots of Oscar buzz, and it was the opening picture at the San Diego Film Festival as well as the Coronado Film Festival. And I can certainly see it winning awards at film festivals, but don’t think there’s quite enough there for the awards buzz it’s generating. Well, aside from the knock-out performance by McDormand. 

The story is about Fern (McDormand), a working-class woman in 2011, who lost everything when her job at the plant in Empire, Nevada closed. She lost her husband years earlier, and ends up with odd jobs and seasonal work. She ends up traveling around in a van she lives out of and meets other baby boomers that are suffering from the financial crash and live the nomad lifestyle. That means the film will get a bit preachy about things. 

We meet a lot of the real people that travel in these circles, and we hear their stories by a campfire. It can be heartbreaking. One of them talks about only getting $500 a month from social security. Another talks about her brain cancer, and how she’s lived a good life. When she describes the Swallows nests she saw while kayaking (and we later see a video), it’s rather moving. And with the gorgeous cinematography (a Zhao trademark), a lot of this film is poetic.

There’s a really powerful scene involving Bob Wells. When we first meet him, and he’s talking about all the ways these folks can live off the grid and survive, you think he might be some creepy cult leader. Yet you slowly realize his heart is in the right place, and when Fern opens up about losing her husband, and he about losing his son — again, it’s heartbreaking and powerful stuff. 

Yet my wife and I had the same thought around the same time — doesn’t a single woman living this lifestyle ever have to worry about horrible things happening to her? I was a teenager when I watched Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed, and I remember how freaked out I was seeing Streep’ character, living on the street…having to take care of a man sexually that lays down next to her. I had never considered that as something homeless women deal with. And while I’m wondering when that’s going to happen in this movie — nope. This group is all nice, never curse, nobody is getting drunk and obnoxious; there aren’t any meth heads. They all seem to be hardworking. They all seem to help each other out. Nobody is stealing from anyone else. Did Zhao just not want to show these elements or…are we to believe yes, these are all good people that merely got screwed over by the man; the Vietnam Vet with PTSD, the woman who worked since she was 13, now having nothing.

There’s a lovely score by Ludovico Einaudi, although in one scene, it’s a bit cloying.

From an opening, where we see a long-shot of a storage unit in the snow, to the various vistas and colorful skies…Zhao just shoots films beautifully (she uses her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards). 

One thing I find interesting is how all the pretentious critics that knocked Green Book a few years ago, will praise this. Yet their idiotic complaints about Green Book were that it doesn’t end racism, or that it’s a story that’s easy for old white people to enjoy that touches on racism. Justin Chang of the LA Times did countless stories complaining about this. Yet, couldn’t you make the same complaint about this movie? This is a story about the homeless, but nobody is mean, there’s no danger, no drugs, no mentally unstable people. Just a bunch of folks that don’t have money and were screwed over with the market crashing and losing their homes. Oh, how convenient for the narrative.

This story was adapted from the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder — Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. I’m not familiar with the source material, but felt like the movie just didn’t give me enough to make it a great story. Especially since it’s hard to understand the characters motivations, as Fern has a few different people with houses she could live in if she wants. It would be like if you saw somebody standing on the street with a sign asking for money, and you felt horrible for them. You rolled down your window and offered them a job being a ranch hand for you, and they could live on the property, working for room-and-board and $25,000 a year, and they turned it down. It would be hard to then feel sorry for that person next time you saw them, and you certainly wouldn’t feel obligated to give them a few bucks. So, unless Fern has some mental problems or there is motivation I can understand for her wanting to live this way, I just check out. Especially since she’s not doing anything all that interesting, and a story needs to give us something more. It’s similar to how I couldn’t rave about Roma when everyone else did a few years ago. Now, in Into the Wild, when the main character gives away all his money to charity and rids himself of possessions — to wander the Alaskan wilderness — he had wealthy parents he felt were overbearing. He had graduated college and was a popular athlete, and probably felt a lot of pressure and was young and dumb, not sure how to properly process all this. That makes his journey a bit more understandable.

One of my movie buddies David said to me, “I think you missed the key point Bob and the others were making. It’s not about being homeless, it’s about the nomadic lifestyle. Choosing to live off the grid and away from the ‘slavery of the dollar’. There are multiple opportunities for Fern to plant roots (that’s a wonderfully fulfilling sentence to write), with David or her sister Linda in Arizona, but the choice to be a nomad is rooted in who she is and how she comes to be whole. It definitely has some political angle in the recession’s impact on certain characters, not on Fern.”

I responded that when I realize she’s willing to freeze in a van while sleeping during a snowstorm, or go to the bathroom in a bucket she keeps in her van…when she really doesn’t need to, it makes it hard for me to really care about her “plight.” David responded, “That’s a valid point. I realized at one point that I gave zero fu*** about Fern. That really drove the tragedy home for me. I think it’s more about the beauty and majesty in everyone. Fern is just the delivery device. But when Bob is talking about his son…devastating. It’s all tragically beautiful. I think the tragedy is the loss of the human inside the superficial…and any other actress besides Frances McDormand and the movie falls apart into satire. She keeps you grounded and really gives you an eye to see the beauty and innocence that is in the world. That’s what I took from it, anyway. If it wins ‘best picture’ I wouldn’t be mad. At least it wouldn’t be a period drama with fancy costumes and silly accents. It’s the first movie in a long time that made me feel something while watching it. Misty eyed and complex, not manipulative. But it’s a hard watch because of the tragedy in it.”

My wife also really liked the film a lot more than me, adding, “I love how she [Zhao] tells a story. It’s subtle, and delicate. I really think you missed the point of it all.”

Perhaps she’s right, but then, her favorite singer is Bruce Springsteen, and this felt like it could have been a story off his Nebraska or Ghost of Tom Joad albums.

You can see it on Hulu, or if you want the big screen experience, it’s showing locally at the South Bay Drive-In.

I’m giving it 2 ½ stars out of 5. My wife said she’d give it 4 stars.

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