Much has already been written about this film. (See link to NYT article below) What struck me strongest was its uniqueness. Director Chloé Zhao has done something extraordinary. There are scads of movies about character studies, the coming of age later in life, processing grief, discovering oneself, but Nomadland is all of that and more. We are allowed inside the lives of nomads.
We know what to expect when Frances McDormand is first up on the credits. From Fargo to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she knows her way around character development. As Fern, she pulls us so intimately into her internal world that there is no looking away. Fern makes it clear to everyone that she is entirely possessed by her need for freedom and isolation, and yet everyone is drawn to her compassion, honesty, and brokenness. Other than Fern’s relentless determination to maintain her freedom, there is nothing harsh about the film. There’s nothing whiny about its theme of rising above poverty with dignity and resolution. There’s a lovely comradery among the nomads, a sense of family, caring, and appreciation of the land that probably has not been seen since the Plains tribes roamed. These nomads travel to seasonal jobs. Fern often chooses not to travel with them. Part of her stubborn drive to be alone comes from unresolved grief for the loss of her husband, the only person in her life that compelled her to stay. Her devotion to him and her grief rejects all attempts from fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) to form a relationship.
Zhao casted real people. This has been done before, especially in cameos, but this is another dimension. Linda May and Swankie live this life. This literally is their life. The dignity and generosity of their spirits glow on the screen. Hear Linda May’s tragedy when she tells Fern that she’d worked all of her life, and when time to retire, her Social Security came to a little over five-hundred dollars. She has no other choice but to live on the road.
At no time was I bored within the story. Nor sad. I was transfixed. It isn’t a tale of woe but of courage, sharing, and endurance. Fern puts her opinion and the story into perspective when sitting in the back yard with her sister’s friends, who talk about selling houses. She points out that there is nothing to be proud about selling houses to people who will never get out from under the debt. The differences between Fern’s idea of living and theirs is a stark reminder of how we make our life choices, what is important to us individually. Fern’s is a life striped down to its essentials, the opposite, and an entirely different American dream.
Look for Nomadland getting award nominations for best picture, directing, editing, and performances. For me, there is nothing like going to the movies. Streaming a movie from home is okay, but sitting surrounded by the dark (and I was the only one in the theater last night) and watching the previews, felt delicious. So what if a mask is mandatory. I never noticed it. Too busy admiring Fern’s courage. Next up, Land.
M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)
Follow on Twitter @RigdonML