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  Nomadland Roam Where You Want To
Year: 2020
Director: Chloe Zhao
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, etc
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Fern (Frances McDormand) lost her job and her husband when the mining town was forced to close in 2011, and because the company owned all the property in the area, they were given five months to find somewhere else to live as the location became a ghost town. After her husband died, Fern set out on the road, preferring the existence of the modern nomad on America, the people who move from place to place in search of work or simply somewhere to stay, though more often than not they end up moving on before long. This is not a secure life, but Fern decides she likes it better than settling down: she doesn't say she's homeless, she says she's houseless...

Nomadland saw its claim to fame be that big Oscar win, and not only at the Academy Awards, the awards season, as stretched out as it was in 2021 as the pandemic carried on, were keen to garland writer and director (and editor, and producer) Chloe Zhao with gongs. It seemed to suit the mood of the past year or two, a reflective, melancholy tale steeped in realism that sought to provide comfort for those undergoing the ordeal of a hampered way of life imposed upon them, telling them this new normal can be survivable if you just hunker down and keep on keeping on. But there was a difference between Fern, the character, and the actual nomads she represented.

This being, he was the embodiment of the Lee Marvin song Wandrin' Star, she was not doing this because she had no choice, indeed we see opportunities for her to have somewhere more permanent to live that many of those nomads would jump at, and this rendered her not quite ringing true to the dire straits that many of her countrymen and women were landed in. That American myth of the romance of the self-sufficient was all over Zhao's film, and even though it was drawn from a non-fiction book, the way that it created an impression of what was basically a homeless life – never mind this "houseless" misnomer - was underselling the genuine hardship that too many had no choice about.

In that manner it was a little like Sean Penn's film Into the Wild, which also romanticised a real-life loner to the point that his ultimate tragedy was portrayed as something for the audience to indulge their sentimentality in rather than a senseless waste. And then there was the problem that no matter how good McDormand was, and she was very good indeed, not to take that away from her, she remained a movie star pretending to be someone many rungs down the ladder of society, and that created a disconnect between the genuine nomads we saw threaded into her factional story, and the feeling she was exploiting their experiences all the time she was trying to sympathetically highlight them. It was an enormously sympathetic movie, there was no doubt there, but there was a slight falseness to it as well.

Therefore we would be offered scenes where the real nomads would share their stories, and those were authentic and even moving, but then we had to tally that up with the celebrity coming in to steal their thunder with a character who had bought into the whole notion of heading out on the highway, looking for adventure: at least in Easy Rider there was a decidedly less than romantic ending to bring us up short about our fantasies of living free and wild. There were millions of citizens, not only American and not only homeless either, who were trapped in go nowhere circumstances, dead end jobs, if they had jobs, addictions to drugs, legal and illegal, and alcohol, in danger of violence, and all sorts of issues that Nomadland barely touched on. The attractiveness of the scenery was all very well, but a lot of folks are going through Hell even before the pandemic, and this did not really do them justice one hundred percent of the time, giving us glimpses but returning to that Wild West glamour - the ending even referenced The Searchers, as if this was a modern Western to be savoured, not troubled by. Music by Ludovico Einaudi.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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