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Non-Review Review: Nomadland

Nomadland is essentially two competing and irreconcilable films.

The first, and more successful film, is a character study of its protagonist. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who has embarked on a life on the road following the death of her husband and the destruction of the community in which she lived. Fern is a wanderer, a restless soul who finds herself trapped between the harsh demands of life on the road and the freedom that such a lifestyle affords her. She is a restless soul wandering across the vast open plains of the United States of the America.

Fern From Home.

The second, and irreconcilable, film is a snapshot of a particular class of people that developed in the aftermath of the Great Recession. As jobs were destroyed and houses were repossessed, large numbers of people found themselves dispossessed and force to live an itinerant existence largely dependent upon the gig economy to keep their heads above the ever-rising tide. There is something almost documentarian about this film, drawing as it does from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book and featuring many actual “nomads” in supporting roles.

Nomadland quite rightly refuses to condescend to the people who have found a way to survive on the margins. However, the decision to focus on a character like Fern robs the movie of a lot of its potential sting and insight. Watching Nomadland, there’s something almost empowering about the way that Fern’s existence plays out, a sense in which Fern is living the way that she always wanted to on some level. This feels rather cynical and calculated in the context of the very real and devastating trauma of the financial crisis and the destruction that it wrought.

Nomadland is most interesting when it focuses on Fern as a character, rather than trying to offer a broader study of this new nomadic working class. McDormand remains one of the best actors of her generation, and she does a lot of work to make Fern complex and multifaceted – a character that maybe doesn’t understand herself as keenly as the movie around her does. The film joins Fern shortly after she has embraced this new life – not so early that she hasn’t named her van (“vanguard”), but early enough that she has yet to learn to keep a spare tire handy.

Nomadland refuses to pity Fern, and it is right to do so. When a girl that she used to teach asks whether she is homeless, Fern is quick to clarify, “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless. Not the same thing.” There is a sense of enthusiastic exploration as Fern figures out how this world operates and how best to navigate it. Scenes of Fern working thankless service-level jobs to support herself are juxtaposed with sequences that capture the awe and majesty of living completely free – watching bats fly from their nests in rock faces or seeing a man feed an alligator as spectacle.

Sitting it out.

Naturally, Nomadland suggests that Fern is a restless soul, somebody who never truly fit in. Her sister reflects on the fact that Fern was never one eager to put down roots or to conform to what society expected of her. Indeed, she seems as surprised as anybody that she ended up living in a house with her husband at their last job. “We had an airport, public pool, a golf course,” she reflects of her time “a company track house”, although she fondly remembers the back yard was just “desert, desert, desert all the way to the mountains. There was nothing in our way.”

As such, from Fern’s perspective, Nomadland is essentially a voyage of self-discovery. The film never downplays how hard it is to survive on the road, taking care to so the menial jobs that Fern works to pay her way and the various obstacles that arise. However, the film also suggests that Fern has found some peace or comfort in this existence. “I think that what the nomads are doing is not that different from what the pioneers did,” her sister argues at one point. “I think Fern is part of an American tradition. I think it’s great.” It is a little condescending, but it is also not inaccurate.

In the middle of it all.

The problem arises from the way in which Nomadland tries to tell Fern’s story as a voyage of self-empowerment against the backdrop of the Great Recession. Fern might have found her groove living this lifestyle, but it seems fair to suggest that very few people live that way entirely by choice. Indeed, one of the early seminars that Fern attends on the subject is explicitly framed as “a support system for people who need help now.” As such, presenting Fern’s journey as one of self-actualisation feels just a little crass.

Nomadland refuses to patronise or condescend to the people who have found themselves living this way, which is more than reasonable. Director Chloé Zhao makes a point to include real-life nomads in key sequences, to add an air of authenticity to the story that she is telling. However, Nomadland refuses to allow itself to feel particularly angry or sad about what any of these characters have lost or the system that shifted in such a way that this is the only way that these people can survive.

The vanguard of a new movement.

Fern is ultimately as close to a perfect fit for this life as it is possible to imagine – a point that Nomadland makes repeatedly and insistently. However, it seems fair to ask whether everybody living this way does so by choice, and whether there are souls within the community who do not find it liberating or freeing, who instead mourn what they have lost and justifiably resent a society that refuses to give them back the security that they once assumed they had.

The problem exists in the gulf between Fern as a protagonist and the Great Recession as a backdrop, and the problem is compounded by the film’s heavyhandedness. Nomadland is never an especially subtle film, often positioning itself as a bold meditation on the human condition and on the American experience. Visiting a settled traveller who has found peace with his family, Fern tells him, “You have a flat tire on your van, Dave.” Dave replies, “I hadn’t noticed.” Fern answers, “That’s because you’re staying.” Everything in Nomadland is afforded similar profundity.

Nomad’s land.

The result is that Nomadland seems to position Fern’s journey not as an individual story, but as some greater piece of commentary – as “part of an American tradition.” Indeed, one traveller assures Fern, “You are one of the lucky people who are from the United States of America.” These are presented as profound and neutral statements, but with little introspection. Nomadland presents shift work at an Amazon warehouse as just a fact of life rather than the horror that it is.

Of course, the response to all of this is to suggest that working conditions like those in Amazon warehouses are a fact of life for thousands and thousands of Americans who cannot keep a roof over their head. That is true, but than Nomadland has an obligation to show the reality of that – the reality of staff forced to pee in bottles to make absurd deadlines, managers hovering and marking down staff for presuming to speak, injuries that result from rushing to meet unrealistic targets.

Puffing fumes.

As an awards contender, Nomadland will be the only gateway that most of its viewers ever have to the reality of that experience. As such, there’s an obligation to treat it as more than just virtual tourism, embracing the nobility and resilience of those conditions. That resilience is remarkable and worthy of celebration, but it should also not be expected – the fact that so many people have to live like this, under these conditions is not the backdrop for a story about self-realistion, but instead a horror story about how fundamentally broken the world is.

Nomadland would be a much stronger film if it was content to work as a character study of Fern, belonging to that rich awards season subgenre about characters who discover a new way of living late in their life. However, the decision to pair that template with a more earnest and self-important study of contemporary America winds up doing neither story any favours.

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