Nomadland (Zhao, 2020)

It is admittedly difficult these days to separate the pleasure of having any new movie to watch from the pleasures induced by a particular film.

That caveat aside, I could not have asked for a better choice than Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland as my first theatrical film experience in over six months. While theaters in North Carolina just reopened this month, spikes in COVID-19 have discouraged me from heading to them. It has only been with the opening of a new drive-in theater in connection with Chapel Hill’s Filmfest 919 that I felt I could enjoy one of my favorite cultural activities while having a reasonable amount of control over my environment.

Nomadland is a star vehicle for Frances McDormand. She rises to the occasion as she always does. This time, she plays Fern, a Nevada woman who lives out of her car and becomes a modern-day nomad when her seasonal job is finished. Her job was the last weak tie to a place she no longer needs to be and doesn’t particularly want to be living in. The problem, of course, is that America is big, and absent conventional reasons to settle in a particular place, choosing any place feels arbitrary.

McDormand gives a layered performance, and writer/director Chloe Zhao’s screenplay eschews flashy Oscar-bait speeches in favor of a steady accumulation of quiet, observational moments. It is the tone of Nomadland that persuades the viewer to lean in. On paper, films about homelessness sound angry or strident, but this film is more about the sadness and loneliness that accompanies alienation than it is a civics lecture about the economics of poverty.

There are a few confrontational interactions between Fern and her sister, but in them, Fern is angrier at circumstances that force her to ask for help than she is at her sibling. Her sister comes across as genuinely worried for Fern rather than upset at her unwillingness to become a dependant adult.

One of the most effective ambiguities in Zhao’s script is whether or not Fern is drawn by something positive in the nomadic lifestyle or merely thrust into it by material conditions. She’s afforded several opportunities to escape her fate, first from her sister and later from a male nomad with his own safety net who would like Fern to be part of something a little more stable, a little more permanent.

That the film doesn’t resolve that ambiguity one way or the other could lead to some complaints about it being cryptic, but I was satisfied with the presentation of these opposing forces in one woman’s life. McDormand makes Fern interesting and real, and by the end, I had less of an opinion about what she ought to do and more of a genuine curiosity about what she would do.

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