Summary: After her husband dies and her hometown experiences poverty during the Recession, Fern becomes “houseless.”
I’ve got a couple of problems with Nomadland, though it admittingly is pretty spectacular. It’s a very… natural movie. Authentic. The dialogue isn’t sugar coated. Director Chloe Zhao uses actual laborers and nomadic folks rather than actors (apparently somewhat of a trademark of hers). Lead Frances McDormand wears no make-up and we get to see the mundanity of everyday life with the bluest of collars. We even get advice on how to poop in a bucket properly. All the lighting is natural lighting and so it’s all very pretty.
Despite all the wide landscape shots that I can never get enough of, there’s something that didn’t sit right with me; and we’re going to get into slight spoiler territory.
It’s shown more than once that McDormand’s Fern has chosen this lifestyle, rather than been dumped into it or fallen into it, and continues to keep choosing it- Fern’s sister offers to let Fern stay and get back on her feet, Fern meets a charming fellow nomad on the road who reconnects with his son and offers her a room because he’s sweet on her (yes, really). With each offer, Fern retreats back into her home of the past few years- an old van that she’s retrofitted with cabinets, a bed, fold-out tables, and various conveniences. And this fits the narrative- Fern is very much a person who enjoys her freedom and has a sense of adventurousness. Overall, it’s implied that through becoming completely reliant on the self without possessions, the nomadic life allows a person to find their own resiliency, capabilities, and self-worth.
It’s not entirely wrong but I can’t help but think this does a bit of a disservice to some people who might not have been offered the same opportunities or choice in how they live. A veteran who was denied health insurance several times over, people who couldn’t find steady work, full families who were evicted because they had to choose whether to pay rent or feed their children, those who couldn’t secure disability or lost their homes. It waters down some of the difficulty and how impossible it is to move between classes in America – how good a real bed might feel, how safety is a comfort, and the sense of security that comes with using one’s own bathroom. While I don’t think Nomadland set out to romanticize or glamorize the lifestyle, it does appear that McDormand’s decision is something to be admired- how dangerous! how determined! how brave!- failing to push home the messages that poverty can be highly circumstantial or that capitalism and the government has no intention of providing the most basic means to its own people.
And that’s possibly why Nomadland resonated with Hollywood so much- it’s a character piece that acknowledges a marginalized class of people. It’s gritty! It’s tough! McDormand gets dirty! But coming out of 2020, with a pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment, and a major housing crisis in Los Angeles, it’s just not enough for me.
And… the Oscars are being hosted in Union Station this year. Did you know there are tent cities being formed just a few steps away, with entire families living on the streets? Academy, are you planning on donating any money to the housing crisis? Do you know what the city looks like below Los Feliz? Why not pick the Bowl? Hollywood can’t get any more tone deaf if this wins Best Picture (and it probably will)/