[REVIEW] ‘Nomadland’: Admire the Empathy but I Had Questions

Over at Backseatdirectors.com recently I wrote a review of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film The Truth. It is what I call a ‘slice of life’ film or in other words ‘a film that follows a character around without much plot or story’. In that review I said “It’s interesting because The Truth as a movie doesn’t have a ton of plot. It’s the kind of film some people will find boring, but not yours truly. I liked spending time with these characters.” I bring this up in my Nomandland review because it is also a slice of life film. And like The Truth, I enjoyed spending time with these characters (or character) but just enough to recommend it. I did not love it like I loved The Truth.

Nomadland is based on a non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, and I am curious to read the book. The strongest part of the film is the empathy it has for all of the people and the lack of judgement of their life choices. It’s also beautifully filmed with lovely cinematography by Joshua James Richards. He also shot director Chloé Zhao’s previous film The Rider, and it had a similar empathy towards its characters, which I admired.

In the film Frances McDormand plays a woman named Fern who is a nomad that wanders in her van from job to job. She eventually becomes a part of a community of nomads (real people not actors mostly featured as the nomads). That’s really all the plot there is. It’s just following her around, seeing her life, which is fine. She’s a compelling enough character to make the film worth a watch.

Unfortunately I couldn’t keep myself from asking a few questions (that maybe are explained in the book but that’s not what this review is based on). It seems unlikely that a single woman alone in a van would be so protected from predators and bad men. But never once in the film is that a problem? Maybe I’m too nervous as a single woman myself but there was no seedy side at all? No drugs, theft, or anything else unkempt.

And it’s not like challenging people makes a film less empathetic. For example, director Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete was very realistic in showing the good and the bad side of the Heartland of America and it only made me more invested as he struggled.

On one hand, I admire Zhao’s optimism in not portraying these dark sides but on the other hand it makes the movie very repetitive and not as interesting as it could have been. In Lean on Pete I was sobbing by the end of it because Pete had overcome so much to get to safety. In Nomadland I felt relief and comfort but not much emotional investment in Fern’s story. It was beautiful but would have probably worked better as a short than a feature.

I’m still going to give Nomadland a recommendation but I’d say to moderate your expectations. Some are calling it the ‘best film of the year’, and I’m not in that camp. Still it’s beautiful enough with a strong enough performance from McDormand to be worth a view. If you see it let me know what you think.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

I saw Nomadland through the NYFF Virtual Film Center at Lincoln Center. I recommend checking them out and supporting independent cinema if you can.

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