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Review: Nomadland (2020)

Nomadland (2020)

Directed by: Chloe Zhao

Premise: A woman (Frances McDormand) travels across the United States, living out of her van and sustaining herself with temporary work.

What Works: Nomandland is a road movie executed in a cinema verite style and it is comparable to films such as Easy Rider and Into the Wild and American Honey. Like those movies, Nomadland is about characters on the move through the American west and the film portrays life on the margins of society. The moviemakers construct a vivid reality on the screen. The film focuses on Fern, played by Frances McDormand, a widow who lives out of her van as a matter of choice. She travels around the country, occasionally rendezvousing with other rubber tramps, and Fern takes temporary jobs to pay for her necessities. Nomandland portrays this woman, her life, and her subculture with a great deal of detail. Fern has outfitted the inside of her van into a home complete with a kitchen, a bathroom, and sleeping quarters and the movie dramatizes how she lives in this space. Nomadland takes the audience into the subculture of rubber tramps, providing a vivid sense of how they live. The film never feels artificial in the way Hollywood movies often do when they try to tell stories among the lower economic classes. Part of the reason the film succeeds is its casting. Most of the supporting characters of Nomadland are played by non-actors and in some cases by people who are actually living a houseless life, namely Bob Wells who is a major figure in this subculture. Nomadland also succeeds because of its stripped down style. The movie is often beautifully shot and has some impressive vistas. The minimalist filmmaking style suits the subject matter and Nomadland succeeds as a study of a character and a subculture but it is also a fresh take on the western genre. Like many westerns, Nomandland is about the search for freedom. But there is no frontier to flee to in contemporary America and Nomandland is partly about the economics of contemporary society. It’s not a polemic but Nomandland does have something to say about contemporary life and the filmmakers trust viewers to figure that out.

What Doesn’t: Nomandland is not a conventional narrative feature. It’s not really plot driven nor does the movie fit into a recognizable story genre. This is more of a profile of a character and a subculture. That’s not a fault of the movie but Nomadland may run up against contemporary moviegoing tastes. It’s a quieter, more subtle film than much of what comes out of Hollywood.

Bottom Line: Nomandland is a beautifully made film. It takes us on a journey with its lead character, exploring a subculture while also providing subtle commentary on the way we go through our lives.

Episode: #841 (February 28, 2021)