Nomadland

Nomadland ★★★★

In the first ten minutes of the oft-moving and well-observed NOMADLAND, I thought a lot about I, DANIEL BLAKE, and Ken Loach specifically, before realising that it was missing a Loachian villain. One never, in fact, appears: the closest is a parking lot guard who's doing his job, followed by a guy who takes a pee while Fern (Frances McDormand) is cleaning a bathroom. Combined, fifteen seconds of screentime, and you'd have to dig a lot deeper to find a third flesh and blood antagonist.

While NOMADLAND doesn't physically embody its antagonist, though - and is a much better movie for doing so - it does present late-period American capitalism as the antagonist, though. Even in doing that, though, the challenges are largely soft-pedaled. Objects are valued more for their emotional attachment than their material worth; barter and free giveaways can supplement the failures of the market economy; people can help in times of need. (The most tone-deaf moment in the film is when Dave has emergency surgery; no mention of its economic impact ever arises.)

NOMADLAND drifts between character study and systemic analysis, which some have considered a failing; for me, it reminded me much more of WENDY AND LUCY, a character story whose full context is articulated by the society which supports those at the margins, not just the protagonist, but those in similar straits. A stellar collection of real-life people supplement McDonald and David Strathairn, and the extent to which this film is a stunning accomplishment is bridging the actor's world with the non-actor's world to provide a seamless whole (something that I struggled with a bit more in my otherwise-preferred SOUND OF METAL, though Ahmed's character's status as a musician helped to counterbalance it in that context), and to lend authenticity to these stories that rarely are told at scale. Not that all of these are tragedies: this is, despite one passing and some frank talk about assisted suicide and grief, a much gentler film than WENDY AND LUCY, to the point where I wondered if it belonged on the Gentle Cinema list.

I still wonder that. My reluctance is its deliberately emotionally manipulative score, which honestly in the scheme of these sorts of things is hardly bald-faced but still took away space I appreciated near the start that allowed me to project into Fern's feelings and emotions, to absorb her situation and come to my own terms with it.

I will mention one other niggle, despite the fact that I basically really liked this film. This overwhelmingly white film is overwhelmingly *pleasant*, and while it's a period piece (an AVENGERS marquee explicitly places it in, what, 2012?), the tension between the America presented on-screen, one where we all hang together during tough times to get by, feels like almost a fantasy. Obviously, this is before red hats gained their social currency, but we don't eavesdrop on conversations discussing, say, Obama's birth certificate that would have well been on the radio in one of the film's many locations.

I don't mind it, though. I like the fantasy. If a vision of a shared, largely white struggle facing economic hardship with collective belonging and assistance is unrealistic, perhaps even the articulation of it can make it more realistic. But being an expatriate for quite a while, these are matters I'm ill-equipped to really dig into. If I had to pick one film about a community at the American margins facing a blow to an already precarious way of life, it would be BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS. But this is a worthy double-feature pairing.

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