With Oscar season approaching and most, if not all, of the offerings available to watch at home, I thought I’d have a stab at reviewing the nominees. Disclaimer: I will not have seen any of these films on an actual movie screen. Some I wish I could have, but these are different times. Besides, I may never get such an easy chance to catch them all as normally half the nominees do not screen in our area until well after the ceremony. These are in no particular order.
Fresh off its Golden Globes win, “Nomadland,” available on Hulu, is a worthy watch. This is a film that rewards a close-to-movie-theater experience. The problem with watching movies at home is all the distractions — pausing it to grab a drink, to go pee, to check that text alert — which can take away from the immersive experience, and “Nomadland” deserves a focus that is as quietly intense as the film itself.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, the film centers around Fern (Frances McDormand), whose husband Bo’s has recently died, and whose town, Empire, Nevada, has effectively been wiped out by the closing of the gypsum plant. Fern lives in a kitted-out van, definitely not an RV, although as she tells a former pupil, she is “houseless, not homeless.” With no discernable skills, Fern is one of a group of nomads, a hidden tribe of people who pick up and move from place-to-place, job-to-job, on a never-ending road trip.
“Nomadland” is beautifully constructed and shot, and if it was a book it would sit definitely on the creative non-fiction shelf (it was actually based on the 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder). The majority of the cast are non-actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves, and they acquit themselves excellently. Swankie and Linda May, who play themselves, give performances of tremendous subtlety. Anyone who has tried to act “natural” knows it is hard to avoid affectation, but there is nothing artificial about the performances.
As excellent as the supporting characters are, it is McDormand who anchors the film. There’s an old joke that actor X is so good I would pay to watch them read the phone book. In McDormand’s case, she is so good I would pay to watch her read it silently to herself. There are few actors who seem so authentic. She is an actor truly without vanity and she is able to convey much with a silent look. Her Fern has a world weariness, with a quiet smile that is genuine, but also seems to say, “This is all I have,” as her lips turn up slightly at the corners.
The other professional actor is David Straithairn, who plays Dave, her friend who would be more if given the chance. But Fern is walled off by her grief — at the loss of her husband and the loss of the town she called home since she ran off with Bo when she was young (we get a glimpse of the alternate world she may have had when she visits her sister).
Fern first meets Dave at a desert meet up in Arizona, organized by Bob Wells (playing himself), where nomads gather annually — a sort of senior burning man, but without the drugs. The nomads hang out, cook communal meals, trade possessions and share a sense of community before heading out across the country. It is here that Fern learns the skills needed for life on the road.
When she finds she has a flat, she knocks on Swankie’s door, who scolds her for not being able to change the tire. Fern needs to take this life seriously, she is told. When the women return from town with a new tire, we are treated to a wonderful meditation on life and death, with Swankie imparting wisdom to the taciturn Fern. Later, Bob and Fern share a conversation that is equally deeply meaningful.
This is not a flash-bang action flick. Not a lot happens, and what does happen, happens slowly. It is a treatise on solitude punctuated by fleeting moments of community. Zhao lets the characters be themselves. When they have something to say they say it. When they don’t, well, we just sit silently with them. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards lets the camera sit and gaze at the beautiful scenery.
This a Fern’s film. It is a literal and spiritual journey. In many ways, it is a classic quest tale, except instead of sailing epic ships, Fern is in a “ratty” van. But the search is as meaningful as any in Greek mythology.
Make the effort to watch “Nomadland” in a quiet place. Allow yourself to journey with Fern and her fellow nomads. That life seems a bit too hard-scrabble for me, but I could see hanging out with these people for a while. For a little under two hours, at least.
“Nomadland” is rated R.