Nomadland (Review): The Spirit of Independence

Best Picture at the Oscars: a marker for either true quality, or the BEST pretentious garbage. Nomadland earned this honour at the 93rd Academy Awards. Read on to see whether it’s worth your while or just another Oscar bait flick…

Nomadland stars Francis McDormand as Fern, a woman who has lost both her longtime job and her husband. She’s forced to live out of her van and sell off most of her worldly possessions. And once her seasonal job at an Amazon warehouse ends, Fern is stuck in Nevada in the middle of winter with no suitable shelter. So she takes the advice of her best friend, Linda May, and leaves for Arizona to learn the ways of Nomads: Americans who live out of vehicles and migrate at leisure.

This film is refreshingly unique in its execution. It’s– to quote my mother– a “glorified documentary with one fictional character in it.” That’s an apt description. Writer/ Director/ Editor Chloé Zhou opted to populate this film with a majority of non-actors– actual Nomads who basically play themselves as they interact with Francis McDormand’s Fern and David Strathairn’s Dave.

Incorporating so many non-actors in a professional production can be a recipe for disaster but, in this case, it lent the film an authenticity. Characters felt more real than in most movies because they are real (mostly). I’ve read that the main Nomads had some aspects of their backgrounds changed for the movie but that their personalities are essentially intact.

Maybe by now you’re thinking: “Sounds like an interesting premise, but how the heck do they make that into a movie plot?” Well, as I mentioned at the top, Nomadland feels more like a documentary than a traditional movie in many respects. The story is loose, mostly serving as a series of moments which demonstrate aspects of nomadic life.

As for those “aspects”: I liked this film’s positive portrayal of Nomadic life. Most directors would have chosen a more sympathetic approach to the material, like “Look at these poor people who’ve lost their jobs, or just decided to drop out of ‘normal’ society. What a curiosity!” But Chloe Zhao has no pity for this lifestyle. She treats it as a genuine alternative to typical American life. And it’s clear how happy and unburdened these people feel as Nomads, though the film refuses to pretend it’s an easy path of living.

There are a few support systems, and you can do OK if you know what you’re doing, but there are serious risks. Access to medical care is hard to come by with low budget, vehicle upkeep is expensive, and your life is essentially in your own hands at all times.

That said– I wish there’d been a few more major problems for Fern to overcome. As much as I like positivity, I also like conflict in my stories. If everything goes well all the time, then there’s no drama, and if there’s no drama then why even bother with a story? Don’t get me wrong– there were obstacles, and some serious ones at that. But they either didn’t affect Fern directly or were too easy to get out of (see, later in the movie when Fern has some van troubles). Not enough happened to maintain my investment all the way through. As much as I enjoyed tagging along for the ride (on the whole), the film’s pacing dragged in the second half. Once Fern got a handle on Nomadic life, the secondary conflict (her friendship with Dave) became the main one and the story lost steam.

The last act in particular gave me flashbacks to Return of the King in that it just. wouldn’t. end… There were about five points where the screen faded out and I thought “Wow. So that’s it, huh? I– Wait, it’s still going?!” Don’t get me wrong– the actual ending was solid and made a tonne of sense for the story, but it could have been reached more efficiently. 

A fantastic shot from the film!

However I felt about the plot, Francis McDormand was great in this film! Perhaps the highest compliment I can give her as an actor is that Fern felt like a real person. I could buy her motivations and decisions from beginning to end. I also liked the character’s fierce independence, quiet sadness, and hardworking attitude. She was a more understated lead than I usually see in movies, which was nice for a change.

Because not everyone will mention this, I want to get on a soapbox and declare Fern’s van as the movie’s MVP/ character! It was one of the movie’s few constants. We spend a lot of time with “Vanguard”, get to see how Fern evolves its interior, and come to know it as the most reliable aspect of Fern’s life. Without that van, the plot doesn’t happen.

Let’s talk a bit about the film-making now. Nomadland’s cinematography was the stand-out element of craft. It’s a gorgeous-looking film! The locations Fern visited, from deserts to forests to coastal areas– all stunning in their simplicity. Who needs fancy CGI when the world is so nice to show?

Once the credits rolled, I noticed Chloe Zhou wrote, directed, and edited the film. As an independent film maker, I have big respect for that. I may not have loved everything about this movie, but I always appreciate the artistic voice of a visionary– especially if most of their vision worked.

Our world creates structured and reliable systems, either for better or worse, but they’re not for everybody. Nomadland feels like a two hour advertisement for an unconventional way of living, meant to appeal that part of us which is sick of modern excess and yearns for a simpler, more rewarding existence. I think that’s one of the most powerful aspects of film as a medium: it allows us a window into times and places we might not otherwise get to experience and teaches us about them. I wasn’t convinced to become a Nomad after watching this movie, but now I know more about that way of livin’ than I did before. No complaints about knowing more stuff.

For its gorgeous film-making and down-to-earth portrayal of uncommon subject matter, Nomadland is Worth a Watch.

NOTE: The whole time I was writing this review, I kept thinking of that old SNL sketch, “Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker”, cause he was best known for “livin’ in a van down by the river!” If you know you know, and if you don’t… check it out. It’s hilarious.

Would you ever consider being a Nomad? What did you think of Nomadland? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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