2021 Oscar Reviews: Nomadland

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

Nomadland

[6 nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing]

Absolutely stunning. I’m not remotely surprised that this film is a frontrunner on multiple lists, and that it won best the Golden Globes for both Best Dramatic Motion Picture and Best Director of a Motion Picture. There’s something very new here. Writer/director Chloe Zhao and star Frances McDormand team up to bring us house-dwellers into a stunning new world. At times at times the film feels like a documentary, and for that we can thank both the stunning American landscapes, and the contributions of real-life Nomads playing fictional versions of themselves. This supporting cast’s acting isn’t always the best, but that’s what makes it feel oh-so-real. On the other hand, usually-awesome Hollywood actor David Strathairn sticks out like a sore thumb. His character is a little bit too shoe-horned in, and despite his talents, he was just a bit too shiny to fit in with the ragamuffins around him. McDormand did not struggle with this Hollywood shine. Instead, she felt just as real as the real Nomads who surrounded her. At times awkward, at times pathetic, and at times stronger than any of those around us.

There isn’t much happening in this film in terms of plot, which adds to the sense of documentary-style realism. Again, the part that doesn’t quite fit for me as a viewer is a late development involving Straighairn’s charater and a visit to his faily home, which somehos mismatched the rest of the film. Still, despite the overall lack of plot twists, we are swept along on a journey with McDormand as she discovers and joins the magic of a nomad lifestyle. We learn a lot along the way. What happens to a town’s residents when the town disappears? How do Amazon seasonal workers live? Are these nomads just depressing and/or crazy homeless people? How does someone from a “normal” background end up here? Is this Desert Homeless Summercamp thing real?

If, like me, you see this movie and then find yourself looking up these questions afterwards, you’ll likely be touched and amazed by the true lives of our nomads. Everything in the film is based on real life. One thing that struck me was how rational and intelligent so many of these people are. It requires a lot of skill and resilience to live this way, and there is pride in adequate self-care. Everyone has to know how to touch up vehicle paint. Everyone has to have a spare tire. Everyone has to plan where and when to find good seasonal work, and has to be ready to work hard in these low-paying jobs. Everyone has to utilize ingenuity in how to mazimize space within their vehicle. These nomads appreciate some of the most important things in life: a solid comfortable portable chair and a canopener is all you really need to find happiness. Backyard barbeques are stifling compared to the endless wilderness of the open road. There is peace in solitude. And a single day on a kayak can be enough to make one feel their life has been a good life.

I expected to be thoroughly depressed throughout the film, and thus, frankly, wasn’t really looking forward to it. And it was sad in parts. But mostly, it was inspirational. Early on, we feel sorry for our protagonist, who has suddenly lost her town, her employer, her husband, and her house. She celebrates New Year’s Eve alone in a freezing van like a big saddo, and when she runs into friends at Wal-Mart, she puts on a proud face and has to explain to her former student that she’s just houseless, not homeless. We feel the exact same pity that we see in her friends’ eyes as they offer her a place to live. But, as we move along, we start to meet people who claim to love this homeless lifestyle. As a viewer, I didn’t really believe them. I was waiting for everyone’s depressing sob stories (which we do have- a dad whose child committed suicide, a vet with severe PTSD that precents him from living around crowds, etc). But what we eventually learn is that for many of these (real!) people, the call to the road is something deeper. It’s a choice, and they are happy. In once scene our protagonist visits her sister. This visit is nothing like I was expecting, and I won’t give away details, but in this scene we realize that, for this person, becoming a nomad isn’t giving up; it’s having the courage to bee yourself. As someone who is currently house-hunting while also being constantly terrified of being tethered and never seeing the world as I’d like, this scene really resonated me.

Just like the nomad lifestyle, this film is not for everyone. It could move a bit too slowly or be a bit too quiet for some. Maybe it glorifies homelessness. Maybe you’re less enthralled by super beautiful sweeping landscape shots than I am. But overall, this is a stunning, wonderful, original, quiet film with near perfect execution. It is very deserving of any and all recognition and accolades.


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