Monday, July 26, 2021

"Nomadland": review

"Nomadland" made the news when it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress earlier this year. Directed by ChloĆ© Zhao and starring Frances McDormand, the movie follows Fern (McDormand) after she loses her husband, and the local sheetrock business goes belly-up. Fern becomes a vandweller, living inside her van—houseless but not homeless, as she puts it. The film has little plot, but is mostly a pastiche of scenes in which Fern encounters (and often re-encounters) people as she lives her nomadic life, starting in Nevada and moving around to other states, working temporary jobs here and there to have the money to sustain herself, and occasionally encountering difficulties (like a flat tire when she has no spare) that she masters with the help of the people she meets. Fern is something of a liminal figure, always at the edge of this or that community, but never quite plunging in. Since the death of her husband, she seems interested in friendships that don't run too deep, but not in any sort of commitment to anyone or anything.

The closest Fern gets to a real community is the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous run by Bob Wells, an old, Santa-Claus-looking YouTuber and advocate of the nomadic, minimalist lifestyle. The Rendezvous meets once a year in Quarzite, Arizona, where Wells acts as an inspirational keynote speaker decrying the ill effects of capitalism and preaching a kind of independence from "the grid." It should be noted that Bob Wells is a real person, and he plays himself in the film. In fact, many of the characters we see on screen are real-life nomads who play fictionalized versions of themselves. Like reviewer Chris Stuckmann, I have no idea how much of the dialogue we hear has been scripted, and how much is just a natural outflow from these real-life people, with McDormand perhaps improvising her acting to go with the flow of the dialogues she finds herself participating in. And some of these non-actors give incredible monologues, often focused on the inevitability of death and the importance of personal connections. It's an open question as to how much Fern internalizes that last thing; she seems pretty committed to non-commitment, although she does make one or two very good friends.

The movie does have actual actors in it as well. David Strathairn, whom I've always found to be as likable as Frances McDormand herself, keeps popping up in a series of almost Dickensian non-coincidences, and he serves as a not-quite love interest for the commitment-hating Fern. She sees him as a friend, but it's obvious he's looking for more, yet he knows not to pressure Fern. It's interesting to watch the interplay between these two characters. 

And yet, because it's easy to tell who's a non-actor and who's an actor, the difference in interactions can sometimes feeling jarring and unnatural. Actors act, and it's often so obvious that they're acting that the acting seems almost self-conscious when you contrast their performance with the more naturalistic performance given by non-actors. Normally, a bunch of actors doing their thing wouldn't bother me because the collective effect is to get me to suspend my disbelief, plunge into the world of the movie, and just go with the flow of the story. When you mix actors and non-actors, though, there's a chance you can be taken out of the film, and while I wouldn't say I was completely jarred out of the world of "Nomadland," I did feel the weird contrast between those who were faking it and those who were simply being themselves in front of the camera.

And that's my one big complaint about "Nomadland." I mean, I've seen naturalistic performances before, like that of Gary Poulter in "Joe," starring Nicolas Cage. But Poulter was just one man; "Nomadland" features a whole cast of non-actors. Aside from that, I didn't mind the movie's slow pacing or general lack of a plot. It was more a character study than a plot-driven film, portraying one woman's attempt to deal with grief and loss while she follows her instinct to gravitate toward the new, the foreign, the marginal, and the strange. In the end, is Fern a lost soul, or has she found her home by remaining on the road, forever moving? McDormand's performance is good enough to leave us with deep philosophical questions.

"Nomadland" is a quiet, thoughtful film. I was a bit worried, at first, that Bob Wells would turn out to be some sort of raving leftist out to bash capitalism, but he instead comes across as tired and sad, fed up with capitalism's dark underbelly, but not offering Marxism as a solution. Rather, the path he offers is a fairly radicalized independence, and how many of us would be brave enough to leave most of civilization behind to follow such a path? "Nomadland" gets my recommendation, but it's not for everyone.



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