A love-letter to the down-trodden, "Nomadland" is one of the most poetic, fascinating and heart-breaking journeys you'll take in a movie this year.
In "Nomadland," two-time Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman whose career was decimated by the Great Recession of 2008, who now finds herself living in her van. As Fern would say, she's not "homeless," she just doesn't own a house. This might sound like wry semantics, but it actually is the overriding theme of "Nomadland."
What is a home? Is it a physical structure? Is it the people in which you live with? Is it a state of mind? Director Chloé Zhao is to be commended for her deft ability to show humanity, unabashedly, in her work, as well as for her knack of visual storytelling using the simplest means. Her previous film "The Rider" was one of the best films of 2017, and it felt palpably human through and through. "Nomadland" is a spiritual successor to "The Rider," in that Zhao makes you feel as if you are watching a documentary, and not a dramatic movie. We see the sweat on the brows, the cracks in the dried, seasoned hands. Her films, her characters are not glamorous. But there is a beauty within.
Fern lives the nomad life, after her town in the American West was literally wiped off the face of the planet when the major corporation that employed most of the people in that town shut down. The opening credits even tells us, that her town of Empire, Nevada was so desolate in the wake of the 2008 recession, that soon after its postal code ceased to exist. She's a hard-worker, a widow whose sole need in life is to survive. She works in an Amazon plant, until that seasonal work dries up. She then works where she can, on different jobs that most white-collared workers would look down upon, the kind of job that bloodies your knuckles and dampens your spirits. She's invited by a friend to go out to a gathering called "Nomadland," a vast desert area where others who have been left out, spit on or chewed up by our capitalist society have gathered.
Fern meets old men, young men, old women, all with just one thing in common: They have nothing left but one another...a society of individuals. But when reduced to nearly nothing except what they can fit in their cars and vans, they show a real compassion for one another, even when they tend to breeze in and out of one another's lives. "See you down the road" becomes their mantra. They are always moving forward.
"Nomadland" marvels in the mundane. We see how these people live, eat, sleep, even go to the bathroom. There are scenes of folks trading goods, washing clothes, enjoying their togetherness. When Fern is presented with a chance for what some would call "upward mobility" via a friend she meets (David Strathairn), she balks. Zhao unwraps Fern's story in succulent layers, and the more that is revealed, we come to realize that the "nomad" might not be created just by consequences of our society or economy, but some people just need to expand beyond the limitations they're presented with even at early ages. In other words, some people are just meant for the roads.
It's a stunning achievement, and at times, a sobering one. You come to realize the stark reality that this is, in fast, the country that we live in. That these "forgotten people" still have the will to live speaks to both sides of the American Dream...they possess optimism that their lives are worth living and a determination to push on, even when all else points to the fact that they've been left behind. "Nomadland" celebrates the forgotten, and its as good a film as you'll see this year.
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn.
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder.
Written, Directed and Edited by Chloé Zhao ("The Rider").
"Nomadland" is available on Friday, December 4th, 2020.
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