Nomadland ★★★½

Butt in theatre I found this to be really moving, certainly a film that invites reflection. Movies that take this kind of look at poverty/those on the fringes of society etc. often feel like they are looking into a particular world or person's life that is built for the film, like you're observing a constructed ecosystem in a glass box; even if they're going for realism (hell, they might even be documentaries) they can’t help but feel like they are artificially designed to be watched and appropriately responded to, and their world may as well not exist outside the film. (I mean I guess that’s the thing about cinema in general…I'm maybe not making sense here but I'm trying my best...)

Nomadland, on the other hand, feels somewhat like the opposite of that. It feels like a window looking out rather than in, like peering out of the narrow parameters of my life at some expansive new terrain beyond. And when it’s at its best, it’s quiet and graceful and resonant. It doesn’t wallow miserably in poverty or tragedy, but it doesn’t romanticise it either. There isn’t really any moralising of any kind in Nomadland; it’s perfectly content to simply observe and listen, rather than trying to get you to do the same.

I think my biggest issue (though I have a few - the awful score comes to mind) comes in the form of Frances McDormand, whom I love as a performer but her very presence here just seems misjudged. There is a great scene towards the end featuring McDormand and her character’s sister which is terrific, beautifully written and carrying a lot of emotional heft at that point in the proceedings, but it feels at odds with the rawness of so much else in the movie. The incorporation of real ‘nomads’, with whom the film spends a lot of time, brings a unique kind of authenticity in that it doesn't feel exploitative or manipulative of them or the viewer, but having the film ultimately wind up being about McDormand’s character arc makes it feel like there are two different movies going on here (clichéd criticism but whatever), and it recontextualises those people's stories into something less valid, as though the film almost becomes unworthy of them.

I can’t say if this is what makes the film not sit right with me – I love David Strathairn’s character, for instance, and what the film does with him – but come the end I didn’t feel wholly satisfied. Generally there’s a lot of stuff I love, Chloé Zhao is clearly a solid director (enough to make me keen to check out The Rider at least) and there are plenty of isolated moments that work wonderfully well. I can't deny it's a film that provokes a lot of thoughts and emotions in the moment, but dwelling on it afterwards I have to wonder if it's doing enough to earn these things, and if it's even worth bothering to make such judgements anyway if it got me to contemplate some things for a while and showed me some things I'd never seen before.

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