Matthew at the Movies: Nomadland (2020)

Cholé Zhao’s Nomadland tries to be an intimate portrayal of nomads on the road, but ends up destroying its own sincerity with its execution.

Nomadland follows Fern, a 60-year-old woman, who embarks on a journey through the U.S. in her van, after losing everything in the recession. Fern travels across the United States, reuniting with old friends and meeting new people, many of which are actual nomads. The film is based on a book called “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder.

The film’s style is very simplistic and minimalist. There are several scenes where people are just looking at the sunset, or walking around and observing things.This is where the film falters. Like I said, many of the actors were actual nomads and, therefore, non-professional actors. This kind of styling, combined with the film’s shooting style and story, reminds me of Italian Neo-realism.

For context, Italian Neo-realism was a film movement that told stories of the poor, working class in, used non-professional actors, filmed on location, and dealt with the economic and morality downfall after World War II.

Nomadland has many of the notions and musings of Italian Neo-realism, however, the main characters are played by well-known actors, Frances McDormand and David Strathairn. Now, both actors do a fine job in their roles, however, the real-life stories of the nomad and living with less clash with these rich, prolific actors that go home to their nice homes and full fridge and pantry.

From what I’ve read, McDormand read the book and was optioning it for a film, and after seeing Zhao’s film The Rider, she approached Zhao to direct it. So, it’s clear that McDormand wanted to play Fern, a role that differs from her usual stuff. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, actors want to challenge themselves and do stuff out of their comfort zone all the time, but a lot of what McDormand does with Fern feels like “I’m so poor. Woe is me. I have to use the bathroom in a bucket.” (Yes, that’s a real scene) It feels forced and unreal, which is not good for a film aiming for realism.

I didn’t care much for Fern as a character, which is the focal point of the entire film, and I found myself wanting more scenes with the non-professional actors. The scenes of the actual nomads telling their life stories are super interesting and engaging, which is probably because they come from a real, true place.

Something else I’d like to point out, Fern, for a time, works in an Amazon warehouse. I highly suggest you look up the labor conditions in those warehouses. For a film about people suffering from economic strife and troubles, it’s a huge missed opportunity to not talk about how poor the conditions are in those warehouses. Amazon is portrayed as a good place for people to work.

The film doesn’t examine the economic angle of why people go nomadic, but, instead, it looks at the philosophy of why and romanticizes it. It looks at the total freedom you have and the self-reliance it takes to live on your own and on the road. I mean, it explains why they didn’t dig too much on Amazon and their practices. It depicts the nomadic lifestyle as a conscious choice of leaving the “real” world, seeking freedom, or running away from personal trauma, instead of the actual answer of economic downfall and job-loss, so they’re forced into it.

However, the film’s cinematography is wonderful. Joshua James Richards does a fine job. Zhao’s direction is good, too. Both of them have a great eye for visuals and visual empathy. Zhao also did the editing, which I quite liked, it had a good pace.

On February 28th, Nomadland won two Golden Globes during the ceremony, which were Best Director and Best Drama (Aaron Sorkin won the Best Screenplay award, which is worrying). Zhao become the second woman, and first Asian woman, to win Best Director at the ceremony. So, clearly some people like it, it just doesn’t do it for me.

It’s funny. One of the many actual nomads in the film is Bob Wells (who has a YouTube channel), in one scene, he talks about the “tyranny of the dollar” and then Zhao depicts Amazon in a favorable light and then works for Disney. The film is too staged and too self-absorbed to be anything that it wants to be, but its images and performances are good, so I’m a little conflicted. (3/5)

The film is available to watch on Hulu.

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