Nomadland is the film for the current moment. It’s also the film for the moment a decade ago, illustrating just how everlasting the country’s tug-of-war between the optimism of the American dream and the hopelessness of reality is.
Debuting simultaneously on Friday at the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival—a historic global virtual premiere that rightly puts the drama at the center of this year’s Oscars race—Nomadland is based on the 2017 reported book by Jessica Bruder.
Bruder’s book chronicled a new and ignored population of wanderers: the Boomers in their 60s and 70s both too poor to retire and unable to afford their homes even while working. The dual circumstances push them onto the open road, tumbleweeds rolling through the heart of a country that made it impossible for them to exist within its system.
The new film from writer, director, and editor Chloé Zhao (The Rider) replicates her signature of casting non-actors in order to immerse the audience in a lived-in experience of the underserved stories and people she’s spotlighting. In this case, many of the performers in Nomadland were the same people Bruder chronicled in her book, a group of former employees of a sheetrock plant in Empire, Nevada, that shut down in 2011, rendering its workforce broke and homeless. Even the town’s zip code was discontinued within six months of the plant’s closure.
A fictionalized narrative in the film adaptation centers around Fern, played by Frances McDormand in a steely, open-hearted performance that could very well see her join Meryl Streep, Katherine Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman in the elite company of actresses who have won at least three Academy Awards. Buoyed by Zhao’s verité style of directing, everything rings so true that if you didn’t know you were watching Frances McDormand, her interactions with the cast of non-actors would make you think you were watching a documentary.
After her husband dies and the plant closure devastates the community, Fern packs up what belongings she can into her van, throws the rest in a storage unit, and finds work over the holiday rush at an Amazon warehouse.
A series of indignities, from a former student in the town asking her if she’s homeless in the aisles of a Walmart to a gas station manager advising that she seek shelter in church rather than try to brave the Nevada cold in the parking lot, makes it clear this life isn’t sustainable. So she hits the road, discovering a tribe of fellow nomads making due off the grid, as well as a new, formidable spirit inside herself: despite several opportunities, she doesn’t want to settle down.
Told with bleeding-heart consideration for the people whose own stories are dramatized, Nomadland resists romanticizing life on four wheels.
In constant conversation with the freedom and the allure of the boundless night sky is the necessity to sling burgers when cash gets low—not to mention the logistics when your bathroom is a bucket next to the hotplate on which you cook your food, which itself is inches from where you sleep.
But Nomadland lends dignity to the circumstances of very real people whose existences were dismissed by the system that was meant to protect them, as long as they did everything right. Well, they did follow the playbook, and yet they were still screwed. Consider the film inspirational and depressing in equal measure.
Premiering at a time when a pandemic has decimated the economy and a record number of Americans are faced with the harsh reality of not being able to afford their homes or find work, Nomadland makes you realize just how much America sucks.
That is probably too glib a statement for a film this powerful, but that’s the sentiment you can’t help but brood in while you watch. The brilliance, however, is that Zhao and McDormand never set out to make such an indictment, but to beg empathy and consideration.
A series of strung-together vignettes, as McDormand’s Fern scrapes by and moves on to the next parking space, odd job, and fast friends in fellow outcasts, the film wallpapers everything both visually and emotionally with the beauty of the human spirit.
Few shots in the year of film thus far are as stunning as the ones in which Zhao trains the camera on McDormand’s or one of the ensemble’s faces as they talk, backdropped by a desert sunset. (Find me, too, something as whimsical as Frances McDormand running amok at dusk through the rocks of the National Grasslands.)
Equally breathtaking are the monologues, playing here a bit like testimonials, of the people left with no resort but to live hand to mouth in their vans, yet who talk about everything they’ve experienced that’s made their life worth it, sans resentment. Their fates are something they were sentenced to without justice, but it’s also an opportunity they seized.
It’s a film that illuminates the richness that is in the emptiness. It reveals how much there is to experience, to lavish in, and to behold in the space where you assumed, or feared, there is nothing.
It’s impossible not to spiral when watching, especially when thinking about the current state of the country and its failures. Where do you go when the bottom falls out? What happens when the safety evaporates, or maybe even didn’t exist in the first place? How far do you fall? And what does that look like on the way down? Do you even know you’re falling, or if you’ve landed? What signifies home, when there isn’t a house?
What’s intriguing is that there’s no wallowing. In fact, it invites a question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point: What is out there waiting for you? What is standing in your way?
There’s always some nonsense sport in these conversations, but if the idea of staging these film festivals, as Venice and Toronto have this month, is to telegraph some semblance of normalcy about the film industry, then there’s no shying away from the fact that Nomadland has just surged to the top of any awards race. It’s crafted with astonishing and meticulous care, performed with new shades of grace from an already legendary actress, and excavates new and timely insights into the state of American existence—which is to say the plight therein.
What’s most striking is this idea of a “Nomadland”—of the nomad, of the wanderer. What you take away is that aimlessness is a fallacy, as much of one as the comfort of an institutional safety net. No one is adventuring without purpose. The bliss they may find is intentional, but the peace may never come. It’s a harsh, yet somewhat beautiful reality, and one that is long due its validation.
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