by on January 22, 2021
“Nomadland” is appearing on a lot of critic’s top 10 best films of 2020 lists, and for good reason. It is beautifully written, shot and acted, and is poignant and relevant. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a widow who lives a nomadic existence in her van Vanguard. She goes from job to job across the country, occasionally crossing paths with other nomads for a time but never putting roots down. Not only did Fern lose her husband, but her home, Empire, Nev., became a ghost town after the mine that fueled the local economy was shut down. So, she took to the road. She enjoys the lifestyle and is fiercely independent. When she is offered a bed in a church during a cold night, she refuses. “Nomadland,” directed and written by Chloé Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, is structured as a series of encounters and is episodic in nature, which is befitting of the free-roaming individuals at its center, including real nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells. The film is essentially plot-less with the closest thing to a narrative through line being Fern's ongoing run-ins with Dave (David Strathairn), a kind fellow road warrior. Dave is clearly sweet on Fern, but she is reluctant to move on from her late husband. This is never stated explicitly, but McDormand is such a gifted actor that it doesn’t need to be said. It comes across through McDormand’s facial expression and body language. McDormand did adopt a nomadic existence during six months of shooting across seven states, including South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada and California. She decorated Vanguard with her own personal items and even slept in the van for a period. McDormand also performed several of the jobs done by people who do nomadic work and inspired the book, such as harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders with the CamperForce program. All this helps the authenticity of her performance. Fern is constantly moving. Even when she finds somewhere to stay temporarily, she will go on walks. During a tour, she wanders off on her own, nearly getting lost. She can’t stay still. At one point, she acknowledges she has perhaps been living too much in the past, but she is also running from it, so it is fitting that the closing moments have her returning to Empire. As I watched “Nomadland,” I thought “Why do we watch films?” For some, it is purely for escapism. For those viewers, a film like “Nomadland” will have little appeal. But film does have the capacity to be more. The late film critic Roger Ebert often referred to films as “empathy machines.” “When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while,” Ebert said when he received his star Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005. “I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet.” “Nomadland” is the type of film Ebert was describing. It is a slice-of-life film. It offers a window into an existence outside our own. It is also dealing with emotions and themes we all struggle with: How to not take things for granted; how to mourn a loss; how to live and die on your own terms. The words movies and films are generally used interchangeably. While I am not above using the words in this fashion, but — and this isn’t an original thought — I will often use film to describe a work that has loftier aspirations and movie to describe something that is meant to be purely entertaining. It is the art versus entertainment argument. It isn’t a hard black-and-white spectrum. Last year’s comedy “Palm Springs” is a good example of a film that falls somewhere in the middle. “Nomadland” falls on the art side of things and it is an excellent example of how film as a medium can be used to tell intimate stories. It is a reminder that while movies are great at capturing the biggest spectacles imaginable, they can also zoom in on the smallest moments of our existence.
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