After losing everything in the Great Recession, a woman embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.
Throughout the 1930’s, photographer Dorothea Lange tirelessly chronicled the plight of the victims of the Great Depression, her black-and-white images bringing the story of millions of suffering Americans to the masses. It would be impossible to calculate the degree of empathy her work created, capturing in stark detail the trails those who were suddenly homeless and often hungry had to contend with daily. The power of her work has not waned, continuing to speak for the disenfranchised, not just here but around the world.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland attempts to do the same thing, sometimes succeeding in moving us, yet often keeping the audience at a distance. Frances McDormand is Fern, a strong, determined woman who, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, finds herself traveling from town to town while living in a van. She makes the distinction that “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. It’s not the same thing,” when her living situation is brought up, revealing either a sense of denial about her situation or a degree of acceptance. She’s whittled her belongings down to the bare essentials, storing them neatly and efficiently in her vehicle, cooking on a hotplate, moving down the road when she must, looking for seasonal work or odd jobs where she can.
During her travels, Fern finds that she’s far from alone, encountering various communities of nomads along the way. They gather in RV parks to commune with one another, help their brethren that are in need, establishing a sense of brotherhood in which help and aid are given and received without judgement or guilt. The fellowship she finds within these groups help rekindle a sense of hope in her and us, their generosity boundless, the sincerity for her and other’s well-being paramount above singular concerns. The heart of the film lies in the scenes Fern shares with those in these groups, Zhao adopting a documentary-style to create a sense of immediacy that at times proves heartbreaking, made more so by the fact that many McDormand interacts with throughout are non-actors, people living the life the actress is stepping into. It’s during these moments where Zhao achieves the sense of pathos she strives for as no artifice is at play, simply genuine experiences, worry and hope being expressed with a sincerity that cannot be faked.
As Fern travels down the country’s by-ways, her path crosses with that of Dave (David Strathairn) again and again. A drifter similar to herself, he’s able to offer a sense of stability that she lacks. Yet, she finds it is a proposition she cannot accept, her nomadic existence having permanently affected her, she’s become used to constantly being on the move but also weary of the permanence of such stability.
To be sure, there is a nobility to Nomadland, yet Zhao’s film seems burdened by it. Though taking place ten years ago, this is a document for our troubled times, one that dutifully records the words and experiences of those who’ve found themselves “houseless.” And yet, there’s something about the film that lacks engagement, a distance that Zhao only bridges occasionally. Yes, it is an accomplished work, it should be seen and due to its subject matter, has proven and will continue to be a favorite among groups of critics and awards organization. If all of this succeeds in drawing attention to those suffering like Fern, all the better. I just wish it had a little more heart.
Chloe Zhao has a signature style of filmmaking and that is to not only capture the realities of everyday people’s hardships and experiences, but to do so with non-actors. Her first film “The Rider” felt like a documentary, so real were the characters, and now “Nomadland” does the same, but lacks that captivating narrative arc we saw in her first film.
We meet Fern who has lost her husband, her job, and her small home as she tries to do more than survive, she lives out of her van. Traveling across the country to work at various itinerant jobs, she connects with those in similar situations—they are not homeless, but houseless. What is even more difficult to obtain for Fern and the others is a sense of hope, but together, they make up an ever-shifting community, supporting one another when and how they can.
“Nomadland” gorgeously captures the brutality of what a section of America’s population experiences given no safety net is in place to catch and help those who are a consequence of economic devastation. McDomand’s character, while fictional, plunges into this world with ease and Zhao tells the story through Fern’s eyes giving it that documentary feel. David Strathairn is another nomad, Dave, his own crisis effecting his lifestyle and choices which also, thanks to chance meetings, gives Fern a glimmer of hope, life, and maybe even love.
Zhao’s heartbreaking tale punctuates the growing issues of poverty, joblessness, and the number of people teetering on the brink of homelessness. Filmed beautifully and finding just the right tones within this real nomadic population, Zhao’s artful eye is unique, but where she falters is giving the story that narrative arc to compel us to engage and connect with these characters. There is also no true ending to this tale, but perhaps that is the goal– to show viewers that there is no solution and no end point in sight.
2 1/2 Stars