Searchlight Pictures
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao, adapted from Jessica Bruder’s book by the same name
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/23/20
Opens: December 4, 2020

The people shown here may just be among those Americans who believe that the regular politicians never understood their way of life. After all, most people in Congress are well-to-do, almost all college graduates, many with degrees in law, finance, economics and even medicine. By contrast the itinerants in Chloé Zhao’s film are not likely to have seen the halls of academe. They do not live in big cities, they do not teach their kids how to ride a bicycle in the ‘burbs. These are the rural folks who, statisticians tell us. are the biggest fans of Donald Trump, who they believe is the first candidate for President who can relate to their way of life, however impossible this seems (if you see “Nomadland” and then take a look at Trump Tower in Manhattan, you may agree).

The film is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s 2018 book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” by writer-director-editor Zhao, whose film “The Rider” is about a young cowboy whose head injury sends him on a quest for new identity in America’s heartland. Taking place not simply in our heartland but in what might be considered a rural enclave of any heartland, the story features Frances McDormand as Fern, in her mid-sixties, whose husband had died and whose town of Empire, Nevada suffers a similar fate when the gypsum mine for which everyone depends on employment goes belly-up. Even the zip code passes away in an area that could not be considered even a one-horse town.

Like Brady Blackburn, the injured cowboy in “The Rider,” Fern goes through a crisis. She takes off in her small rec vehicle, carving a new identity, wondering whether she can handle her unwelcome new independence. She runs into a virtual commune of elderly people who appear not to complain about their lives in the American West, taking warmth from the companionship of people like them. (Most are played by non-professional actors.) They take odd jobs to make ends meet, including temp work with Amazon during the Christmas season, and even there, as Fern tapes the boxes that are en route to tens of millions of homes, she looks so relaxed that you wonder about people who complain that Amazon exploits its workers—limited bathroom breaks, stop-watch timing and the like.

I think Zhao wants us in the audience to put ourselves in place of these people, and no doubt many of us imagine ourselves away from the hamster wheel, the rat-race, the belief that the American dream may consist not of the home with the white picket fence, two kids and a golden retriever, but at the same time not like that of the unfortunate homeless people who live in cardboard boxes in heartless big cities. Covering towns in what we new Yorkers may consider flyover country—Quartzite, Arizona, and bitter-cold South Dakota warmed by the campfire and the camaraderie of what some refer to wistfully as the real Americans… while enjoying sushi in a cozy restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side.

There’s even a chance of sixties-plus romance, as Dave (David Strathairn) shows how flirtation is easy when everyone is naturally friendly and non-exploitative. They part. They meet again. But what about money? Is working odd jobs in Amazon and baking doughnuts in fast-food joints able to satisfy the basics? You probably can guess the biggest expense. Remember that nomads, unless they are thumbing rides, are traveling in their own vans. What happens when they need not only gas money but a complete restructuring of their vehicles? Fern, for example, is quoted $5000 to get her broken-down wheels running again, and here’s where complete independence ends as she must hit up her sister for the money.

As you’d expect, this film does not follow the usual plot lines of commercial productions with beginnings, middles and ends, maybe some flashbacks and a slew of twists. The action is circular, and there really is not a heck of a lot of variety in Fern’s life. But isn’t there something enviable about enjoying the friendship of people who ask nothing in return, who are not out to pick your pockets?

The best thing about the enterprise is Frances McDormand’s awards-worthy performance. She is no longer the assertive but pregnant presence of Marge Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” or the justice-seeking Mildred of Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” Here she is just another American seeking the American Dream in her own way, looking relaxed throughout but perhaps wondering whether she can spend the rest of her life as a wanderer.

108 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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