Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, 2020, USA/Germany)

  One of the frontrunner’s for 2021’s Oscar ceremony, Nomadland is the third feature from Chloe Zhao. Based on a novel by Jessica Bruder about the real-life phenomenon of recession-impacted Americans taking on a nomadic lifestyle in the American West, the project bears surface similarities to Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017). Both films take a docudrama approach toward the economic hardship behind the American dream. Baker’s film is much more successful than Nomadland, however.

Nomadland is a “nice” film, gorgeous to look at, but there is something curiously empty about it. Nowhere does the film ring true. While Frances McDormand does her best with the lead role of Fern, a woman who leaves her hometown become “houseless,” we are never really convinced of her plight. There is something altogether too sanitized about the vision Zhao presents, as if it is tailor made to engender sympathy toward its characters. There is no real danger, no real sense of desperation. All of the characters in the film are friendly and have stories to tell. They don’t swear. For anyone who has spent the least bit of time exploring America, this will ring as inauthentic. 

This is ironic considering the fact that McDormand and David Straitharn are the only two actors in the film. One would think that Zhao could have captured some authenticity. But the proceedings feel very staged and scripted. Even moments that should be very moving - a character’s death from cancer - feel inauthentic. That’s not to say the film has nothing going for it. There is beautiful cinematography of the American West. But overall the film plays it too safe and tries to appeal too much. It does not really capture the struggle that many Americans - especially older ones like Fern - go through. There is still a great film to be made about that subject.



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