Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
Written by Chloe Zhao
Based on “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” by Jessica Bruder
Directed by Chloe Zhao
Produced by Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey and Chloe Zhao
Cinematography by Joshua James Richards
Edited by Chloe Zhao
Music by Ludovico Einaudi
By Matt Neufeld
“Nomadland,” a fictionalized feature film about modern-day, twenty-first-century homeless people in the American West who live in their cars and survive by working stop-gap, temporary, part-time and low-paying menial jobs, is a failure at every level as a feature film–this movie is heavily brought down by unsteady and disjointed direction and production, too under-stated and generally amateurish acting, shaky and haphazard editing, far-too-slow pacing and timing and, most severely, by wayward, rambling, confusing and directionless story, plot, dialogue, characters and screenplay, plagued most of all by an overall misplaced and misguided message that wholly misfires in horrendously clueless, uneducated and unfortunate ways in regards to a very serious societal problem that needs to be fixed and brought to an end–and not ever romanticized.
That latter misguided message is the main aspect of “Nomadland” that brings down this movie, and this movie is indeed brought down hard and quick by this notion of somehow, for some mysterious reason, romanticizing homelessness–an issue that should never be romanticized, especially in Hollywood fictionalized movies that should know better. Yet, that is exactly what occurs with “Nomadland.” The director and screenwriter Chloe Zhao for some reason presents a rambling, often-unclear and often-baffling movie in which bands of homeless people living in their cars and RVs full-time are presented as some type of modern-day frontiersman, adventurer and mythical off-the-grid heroic nomad whose generally dangerous, unsanitary, unstable, unsettling, mentally-challenging, physically-challenging, medically-challenging and financially-challenging existence is apparently able to conveniently leap-frog over these very real–and very destabilizing–obstacles as if they’re just minor bumps in the roads. Well, the obstacles for the homeless are never just minor obstacles as they seem to be portrayed in this movie, and even trying to fictionalize, justify and romanticize homelessness, the movie, again, fails on all levels. You just cannot present a film about homelessness–even in a fictional feature film–and romanticize this issue, because even on fictional level and even trying to sustain a willing suspension of disbelief, it just plain still doesn’t work.
“Nomadland” attempts to have viewers believe that all will be okay with these homeless folks, that they’re proudly living the life that they choose to live, that they are doing okay, that they will overcome the hundreds of obstacles they face, that they’re enjoying living this life, and that, essentially, on one basic level that comes through from this movie, all is well and all will be well. Now, of course, the filmmakers will argue this and say that they’re simply presenting a situation that is indeed real in modern-day America, and they’re holding up a dark, stark mirror to that situation, and they simply added a fictional story to give these homeless folks’ existence a story foundation to tell their story. None of those arguments hold up, alas, after watching “Nomadland.” The movie simply, erroneously and unfortunately–no matter how much the filmmakers protest–ends up romanticizing without clear repercussions, lessons, morals and messaging a very serious societal, public health, mental health, cultural and public safety issue.
“Nomadland” shows scores of people living, as noted, off the grid in the modern-day–the 2000twenties–American West by literally living in cars, vans, trucks and RVs. These people do not have a centralized, official and legal home address. They do not live in apartments, townhouses, shelters or single-family houses–or other official, legal, full-time residences. They even reject offers of safe, steady, permanent homes when offered. They literally live in their vehicles. And before anyone makes the argument that people who live full-time in RVs have all the amenities of a home–shower, running water, bathrooms, kitchens–it should be noted that most city, county, state and federal officials do not recognize living in an RV as a legal residence, and that is important because every citizen in the United States should have a full-time, legal residence to file taxes, to vote, to get full-time jobs, to establish credit, to get a health plan, and to get hundreds of other aspects needed to live a healthy life. Living in an RV is not legally recognized in most jurisdictions as a full-time, legal residence, again–and that is important and that does have consequences that stream on through all levels of society.
“Nomadland” follows these nomadic folks–often, yes, nice folks–as they drift from place to place, from job to job, from parking area to parking area; from dangerous places to safe places; from legal places to park to illegal places to park; from reliable jobs to unreliable jobs. Yes, the movie does show the quite apparent downside and dangers of this lifestyle, but–once again, for emphasis–this film’s overall tone and atmosphere doesn’t do enough to bring home to the viewer just how horrendously dangerous, unsafe, unsanitary and illegal this lifestyle truly is for the nomads. This point may have already been made here repeatedly, but the repetition has to be made to drive home the over-riding fault of the movie. And it’s an important point to make: no one should romanticize homelessness.
These nomads–that’s not a derogatory term, as the homeless folks, their sympathizers and other observers refer to them as nomads–sleep overnight in their cars in hot and cold weather, often dangerously shivering in the cold weather and over-heating in the hot weather; they literally take bowel movements in buckets right in the middle of their vehicles, which is horribly unsanitary; they don’t have the money sometimes to pay for repairs to their cars if their cars break down, which prompts a domino effect of other problems; they continually face threats of attacks, violence, abuse, sexual abuse and who knows what from strangers; they are considered nuisances by many people who have to tell them to get off of their land and tell them to move on; they face uncertainty about their next job; they’re separated mentally, physically and in terms of communication from their families, friends and acquaintances; they suffer from mental health issues; they do not eat properly; they do not keep themselves clean enough in terms of basic hygiene; they often suffer from loneliness and alienation; and, if they do not maintain full-time home addresses, they face financial, tax, voting and other basic citizenry, medical, financial and legal problems. None of this is good, and none of this should be falsely, insensitively and mistakenly romanticized in a Hollywood feature film. Yet–you guessed it–that’s exactly what happens in the movie.
The usually-reliable Frances McDormand and David Strathairn–talented actors, of course–play two such nomads, traversing the lonely, stark, relentless and uncompromising nether-regions of the modern-day American West–a decidedly un-romantic and, frankly, over-built, over-developed, financially-ruined, job-depleted, industry-depleted and concrete-filled version of the modern-day American West that resembles every other over-built, over-developed, financially-ruined, job-depleted, industry-depleted and concrete-filled region of every other part of modern-day America–as they look for the next part-time, look for the next safe and legal place to park and camp, and look for the next day-by-day lifelines to simply survive. McDormand and Strathairn portray their characters well, but their acting here is drastically underplayed and understated–and it’s eventually too underplayed and too understated–and it’s as if they’re trying too hard to blend in with the scores of real-life, non-actor nomads who are actually playing themselves throughout the movie. Yes, you read that right–there are real-life nomads playing themselves in a feature film that contains a fictionalized story with fictionalized characters.
Now, it’s not unusual for real-life people to play themselves or people based on themselves in a fictional feature film, of course–that happens all of the time. But the problem in “Nomadland” is that these nomads are not actors, and their scenes don’t generally come across as theatrical, story-driven, character-development-driven, plot-driven or narrative-driven. They simply pop up and pop in and out of the attempted narrative–which is barely there, by the way, as previously noted–and talk about their lifestyle. But when a feature film puts too many non-actors and too many real-life people in the film, in the story and in the plot, eventually–and obviously–that amateurishness comes through, and that non-acting ends up bringing down the movie. Yes, it’s nice to see these real people shine on camera–they are nice, caring, kind people and they are indeed very real people. However, they are appearing in an overall fictionalized story, and that attempted mesh, blurring and melding of fiction and real life just doesn’t end up working on a workable, adequate, believable, sustainable, entertaining and successful level. It’s not the fault of the real-life folks, of course–this is the fault of the director and writer and the producers.
Either the director-writer should have cast actors in these supporting roles of the other nomads or–and this is the major alteration that should have been done with “Nomadland” before one bit of footage or one take of footage was filmed in the first place–this movie should have simply been a feature-length, non-fiction documentary on this particular, respective subject and area of homelessness. Actually, if “Nomadland” had forgotten and jettisoned the fictional story and just been made as a 100 percent, straight-ahead documentary about these homeless nomads roaming the modern-day American West in their vehicles, director-writer Chloe Zhao could have made a blockbuster, attention-getting, possibly award-winning feature-length documentary, boosted by its odd subject matter and the myriad social and cultural questions that the nomads present on numerous levels.
Yet, alas, “Nomadland” still sticks to that uncomfortable combination of fiction and realism, and the experiment just doesn’t work in the end.
Now, for those who’ll possibly see everything mentioned in this review as disrespectful, uneducated, misguided and a misunderstanding of the nomads or homelessness or homeless people–that is actually incorrect, untrue and as far from the truth as possible. I am a career journalist, and throughout my career, I have covered stories about the homeless, and through the years, I’ve talked to literally hundreds of officials and experts in the area of homelessness about the issue of homelessness, including mental health officials; public health officials; social services officials; health and medical officials; government and political officials at the town, city, county, state and federal levels; law enforcement and public safety officials; and advocates for caring for the homeless. To a person, 100 percent, every single person involved with working with and helping the homeless communicate clearly one central message regarding the homeless: The homeless should not be homeless, and the best thing to do for homeless folks is to help them cease being homeless. And the overriding goal in the area of homelessness, according to all of these officials, is to get the homeless off of the streets, to get them into a permanent shelter, to get them into full-time jobs, to get them involved in the community at large, to get them in touch with their families and friends and acquaintances, to get them the medical, physical, addiction and mental health services and care that they may need, and to get them into safe, warm, comfortable homes where they can live happy, health, satisfying and successful lives. It may not always be easy, it may not always work out, it may be exceedingly difficult, but, at the same time, the world is full of thousands of success stories where advocates, officials, government agencies and organizations have indeed gotten people off of the streets, into jobs and homes–and into fun and enjoyable lives where they can live and strive and succeed and love again. That is the overriding goal of helping the homeless.
Thus, the fictionalized version of “Nomadland” needed to have this over-riding perspective, context, point, message and theme to make the movie work. And any documentary about the theme of the homeless also needs to have this point and message prominently noted, displayed and conveyed. The issue of homelessness and helping the homeless is just too important, too central to society and too connected to all of us to sentimentalize and romanticize without properly addressing the reality of the issue, either in fiction or in documentary form.
Thus, consider “Nomadland” a failed moviemaking experiment. However, a central theme of experimentation in general, in any area, is to pick yourself up after a failed experiment and immediately try and try again. The world should patiently await a full-on, feature-length, news-oriented, serious documentary on this particular area of homelessness–of course, complete with the proper interviews, documentation, insight, research, context and perspective properly and clearly displayed, presented and communicated in regards to the issue of homelessness, which remains, unfortunately, a quite troubling, worrisome and humane societal and cultural problem not just in the United States–but in every country on the face of the planet.