I’ve moved around a lot during my life, never staying in one place for more than a few years, and in recent times it has become even more absurd with moves occurring so rapidly I’ve lived at seven different addresses in the last two and a half years. Some of those times I’ve spent months living entirely out of a carry-on suitcase and a backpack, or in a room barely larger than a closet, and now I’ve spent the last two months sleeping on a couch, all of which are things that have subjected me to some level of ridicule from my friends. The concept of owning a house and being tied down to one place for years is revolting to me. I change up where I am often and don’t bring a lot with me, though there are still commitments to staying for a certain amount of time, but having home that isn’t tied to a physical address could allow for so much more movement. In Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) and many of the people she encounters have uprooted their lives to live out of their vans and found this ultimate freedom. There’s a certain line I would never be willing to cross over, where it goes from romantic to unnecessarily difficult, and having to poop in a bucket like they do is firmly past that line, but there’s a line of thinking behind their decisions that I can relate to and that has informed my own. It’s partly a financial decision to live a minimalist and untethered life, and today there are many people facing those sorts of struggles, which the film tries to show through its characters’ lives, but there are other ways to live with limited means, they just don’t afford the same freedom. Some people are running from their past, afraid to face the tragedies that have befallen them, while others are looking for a future where they can live instead of working, but all are on the go and none will ever be fully understood by anyone who doesn’t have that same drive to drift.
Nomadland has been met with widespread acclaim, becoming the first film to win the top prizes at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, but unfortunately, once the intrigue of seeing people who challenged the expectations of settling down began to dwindle, so did my appreciation for the film. Visually it’s stunning but, content wise, I never found myself enthralled by the main narrative. Like The Rider, it makes heavy use of real people telling their own stories, but here we get a created one to go alongside them. In attempts to interweave the story Frances McDormand is living with the accounts of others about their lives, the character we are meant to follow through the narrative felt like the least interesting part. This isn’t a jab at McDormand herself, who is a superb actress and manages to often feel almost as real as the people who really did live through these things and act against non-actors in a way conducive to them both, but it was often impossible to fully forget that this is a woman we’ve been watching on screen for decades. She has the look and the mannerisms appropriate to the story she presents but she always felt removed from it and it made everything that happened to her far less interesting than her surroundings while making her own character’s situation seem easier than it would be. At other times, the film would lean into the theatricality and symbolism and achieve the same effect, as when we repeatedly see a looming Amazon warehouse that represents the economic situation and exploitation that puts people in these places. It has a purpose, but it disturbs the naturalism of the film.
There’s a commentary about the failures of America that could lead people to a nomadic lifestyle and a beautiful portrait of the continuation of the American frontier and the ability people still have to be explorers and control their own lives, but these both felt diminished by the presentation as I spent half the time wishing I was watching the other half. Give me ten more hours of watching nomads tell their life stories and show how they live in their cars and I would happily watch it and probably find a lot more to appreciate, but mixed with fiction, it just feels like it undermines the real struggles and motivations to put a recognizable face in there but doesn’t manage to become engaging in the way something with such a talented performer should be.