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"Nomadland" Review

 With the announcement of the 2021 Oscar nominations this week, thus begins the annual slog to see as many of the nominated films and performances as possible. Having already seen only the appallingly-nominated Sound of Metal so far, I decided to begin with one of the top favorites, Nomadland, which received nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Cinematography, four(!) of those nominations going to director-writer-editor Chole Zhao, whose next film will be the year-delayed Marvel Eternals slated for release in Nov. 2021.

 Starring Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand, Nomadland, tells the story of Fern, a widow from Empire, Nevada, a gypsum mining company town that shut down and became a ghost town in 2011. When the company-owned home she and her husband shared was taken from her (as it was for all employees), she stored her possession and moved into a van. We meet her as she parks in RV camp and begins doing seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center. (This is a real thing, part of what Amazon calls CamperForce at several of their sites nationwide for the past decade.)

When the work ends after the New Year, she is invited by co-worker and RVer Linda May (nearly all roles are played by real-life nomads as fictionalized versions of themselves) to come to a camp in Arizona where nomad lifestyle guru Bob Wells will be speaking and teaching the ways of the open road. Fern initially demurs, but after one too many cold nights in the van, decides to head south.

 While there, she makes the acquaintance of David (David Straithairn, who by being a recognizable face amongst the civilians telegraphs his importance), who is sweet on her, and Swankie ("herself") as a veteran nomad who thinks Fern needs to learn up on self-sufficiency. Swankie reveals she has terminal cancer and is planning on heading to Alaska to kayak and experience as many good moments as she can before dying.

From there the film follows Fern as she drifts from one area to another, picking up work as she goes - from working as a campground host in the Badlands to a sugar beet harvest elsewhere. She keeps running into David and eventually lets him hook her up with work at infamous South Dakota tourist trap Wall Drug where his son (Tay Straithairn, David's real-life son) appears, begging his father to come home and meet his grandson and stay with them. 

Through it all Fern seems isolated from those around her. While there are moments of community, there is generally incredible loneliness. During a visit to her sister's, we finally get some insight into her personality, that she left home as soon as she could, and when offered a chance to stay with David's family, she bolts, but we never really get what's making her tick. She's not a misanthrope; she was married a long time, but never had children; we mostly learn who she is by others talking about her, not by anything she reveals beyond her actions. 

It's only due to McDormand's quiet, restrained performance that Fern seems tangible despite there not really being a character there. With her self-cut hair and hard mien, we presume things about Fern that aren't otherwise explicit. Frankly, the only surprise about her character was that there was no surprise coming like an Act 3 sucker punch that she's dying of something. 

The fundamental weakness of the film, though, is that it attempts to transform the non-fiction source book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, about how seniors displaced by the 2008 Great Recession adopted nomadic lifestyles seeking seasonal work, which had already been made into a documentary short called CamperForce, into a dramatic feature film, but using almost exclusively real nomads as the cast around a cypher of a protagonist. Put bluntly, this should've been a documentary or a fully fictionalized film, as the hybrid mix of fascinating real people with weathered faces and genuinely lived experiences clashes with the somewhat rote fictional passages. People like the nomads are a fresh experience in movies; we've seen the drama before. 

Some have tried to impose a political message upon Nomadland, that it's a critique of the exploitation of disposable workers by cruel capitalists, but no one in the movie seems to share this view and many view those punching the clock year after year to pay off mortgages and dying without having lived for themselves as the victims. I think the complaints are just people who want to see things they want to see seeing things.

 While the entire frame of the story itself didn't really gel, what's indisputable is the gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards, who is a relative newcomer, having collaborated with Zhao on two previous films, but should be catapulted into the top ranks with his lush naturalistic photography. Zhao has wisely chosen a ultra-widescreen aspect ratio and Richards fills the frame with creamy "magic hour" light - the soft warm light found at and slightly before/after sunrise/sunset - which bring the truly alien landscapes shown to life and lend to the pseudo-documentary feel of the film. (Look at the trailer to see for yourself.)

Zhao's direction and editing are fine as well. The nomad performers are so natural and at ease that the only real tipoff that they're not actors is that no one who looks like these people are actors. (That's why Straithairn is so jarring when he arrives.) The isolation amidst desolate barren landscapes is well-conveyed in her shots. 

It's a shame that her four nominations (for writing, producing, directing, and editing) are being touted as diversity trophies for a Chinese woman as if what's on the screen isn't simply talent, but something more special because it wasn't a white American male doing it. It's patronizing and divisive, but sadly what our cultural overlords are currently obsessed with. 

While the story itself didn't connect with me, it's not badly told, and I'm definitely intrigued to see what Zhao will do with a giant comic book movie starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. 

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.  (Currently streaming on Hulu.)


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