In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada was forced to close. One of the workers there, Fern, is among those affected. With her husband having passed away recently and her livelihood gone, she decides to sell most of her belongings and purchase a van to live in, seeking out seasonal work to make ends meet.
The Great Recession of 2008 placed a significant burden on the working class. Stories such as Fern’s were especially common, as many smaller towns relied heavily on a single industry, so when the facilities closed, many of the workers had nowhere else to go. Like Fern, many of them would take seasonal jobs at larger companies such as Amazon, but permanent work was hard to come by. It wasn’t uncommon for even minimum wage food service jobs and retail stores to suddenly effect high barriers to entry despite the simplicity of the tasks involved.
The resulting aimlessness and lack of belonging in the world is thus reflected in the newfound nomad lifestyle Fern finds herself a part of. Many of the nomads she meets are quick to tell her that their new way of life is actually not too different from the pioneers of the nineteenth century. While it sounds like an unconventional ideal, those living in such a fashion face their own set of difficulties. While they don’t exactly have to survive against as many hostile elements as their forefathers, they must contend with the fact that the modern world isn’t as conducive to such a lifestyle. This is demonstrated in how after Fern begins a relationship with a fellow nomad, David, they find themselves trapped between worlds. David chooses to move in with his family while Fern is unable to do the same, for her husband’s death has continued to affect her.
There’s also the fact that while living in a van isn’t as expensive as paying for rent or a mortgage, it has its own challenges. For want of a bathroom, Fern must substitute a toilet with a bucket and use public showers to wash herself. On top of that, while a vehicle breaking down is inconvenient for anyone, it is absolutely devastating to someone using it for shelter. And this isn’t even getting into how various security guards and law enforcement officers forbid nomads from camping out in certain parking lots overnight or having to use laundromats to wash their clothes.
When parsing Nomadland as a cinematic production, one could easily consider it a modern take on Italian neorealism. It was a national film movement that started shortly after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s government in 1943 during the Second World War. The extreme hardships brought about due to war and a fascistic government caused artists to focus their attention on the poor and the working class – the ones who struggled the most during those tumultuous times. Films from this movement were typically shot on location and featured amateur casts – both factors went a long way in lending these products authenticity.
Nomadland takes a lot of cues from the movement in that, while the Great Recession wasn’t as devastating as a globe-spanning conflict, it did make life significantly more difficult for the poor and the working class. The most obvious cue Nomadland takes from Italian neorealism would lie in its cast. With the exceptions of Frances McDormand and David Strathairn, a significant portion of the titular nomads are fictionalized versions of the actors and actresses who portray them, thus granting this film a similar degree of authenticity.
While I do think Nomadland succeeds in capturing the sheer aimlessness of its protagonist, I would also argue it succeeds a little too well in that regard. Nomadland is a slice-of-life feature in the purest sense, having its protagonist move from one situation to another without a real buildup to anything. As such, the film doesn’t really end as much as it comes to a dead stop. I can appreciate this is the point – that life goes on after the screen fades to black. The problem is Nomadland ultimately takes a little too much refuge in that fact, and its actual ending comes across as abrupt – as though the budget ran out the exact second the last scene was finished. It’s not bad, but it does make me wonder if Chloé Zhao really did all she could with her adaption of Jessica Bruder’s book.
In general, I find slice-of-life films from around the 2010s onwards to be a difficult sell. It’s a perfectly fine genre, but in practice, it usually works better in a television format than a cinematic one. This is because you get to know the characters in greater detail and the creators give them a large variety of situations to react to. It also avoids the issue films have in that they don’t have to waste time introducing the characters or giving the audience a reason to care about them. On top of that, because slice-of-life plots tend to be rather thin, episodic lengths ensure they don’t overstay their welcome.
The reason I say this is a comparatively recent issue is because slice-of-life films that predate or slightly postdate the advent of television usually get a pass by virtue of having been written by someone who lived through a more interesting time period. After the rise of the mumblecore movement in the early twenty-first century, however, they became increasingly difficult to relate to. At some point, these kinds of films managed to be less interesting than just simply having an active social life.
Nomadland itself is hardly the most egregious example of how this kind of film falls short for a number of reasons. To begin with, the aimlessness plaguing many contemporary slice-of-life features is more of a feature than a bug in Ms. Zhao’s film, capturing the uncertainty many people like its lead character faced after the economic disaster. Relatedly, it also goes a much longer way in getting the audience to care for the characters knowing many of them are the genuine article. Regardless, a lot of the sympathy you’ll have tends to be derived from what happens to the characters as opposed to who they are. While this isn’t a bad thing in of itself, and I do think Nomadland was a necessarily film to make, it does potentially render itself unpalatable for anyone who values plot over everything else.
Final Score: 5.5/10