How Subtle is Too Subtle in ‘Nomadland’?

Aspen Nelson
Aspen Nelson
April 25, 2021

Minor Spoilers Ahead

They say home is where the heart is, and Nomadland is all heart…if you project onto it, at least. Following a woman living in her van going from one temporary, minimum-wage job to the next, the film gives some insight into a world often hidden from the on-screen due to its often realistic and unromantic nature. When we watch movies, especially mainstream Hollywood ones, there is always a large amount of excess in both story and lifestyles. It's more “fun” to focus on the lives of rich and middle-class people where wealth possibilities are endless and the story doesn’t have to acknowledge class inequalities (which is one of the most glaring issues of American society). However, Nomadland doesn't shy away from this and gives light to a harder lifestyle that’s outside what is considered ideal: unstructured, singular, with few possessions, no white-collar career, and nomadic. Departing from what Americans have been conditioned to believe is the “right” way of life (marriage, 2.5 kids, a life-long 9 to 5, and faith in “the system”), Nomadland comes out at a great time to cover its themes of political inequality, the need for travel and freedom, and the grand uncertainty of life. Audiences get to experience pain and nostalgia without the dramatics of bourgeois life. Instead, they are given a look (not immersed though) into the simultaneous oppression and freedom in living outside the bounds of society. There is, though, an issue of representation that lingers throughout if this really is authenticity or playing poor for a faux self-awakening from the audience. The portrayal of job insecurity and poverty is framed more as an alternative lifestyle than an act of circumstance despite the recession being the main factor in the character’s life-altering change.

Frances & Fern

The incomparable Frances McDormand tells Fern’s story through a collection of images where we get to closely study her countenance and the emotions that bubble at its surface. Her hard face and reflective smiles can bring tears to your eyes since it allows for personal introspection to put on the film instead of hard-lined narrative meaning to be outwardly thrust upon viewers. She asks for patience and eventually does get it out of you when one finally gives themselves over to just experiencing rather than searching for a narrative (which admittedly is how our minds are conditioned to view films). Her chemistry with her love interest Dave is just as endearing, where they don’t get caught up in over romantic plans of star-crossed lovers. It addresses an often ignored reality among older peoples of wanting company with one another rather than needing some whirlwind romance. On the other hand, seldom do we even see older people (particularly older women) being madly in love and passionately excited for a romantic relationship. I suppose she learns to love herself and the freedom of not being tied down to anything — though she is still stuck to doing minimum wage jobs that often abuse their workers and do not provide a suitable amount to live off of.

Fern’s (Frances McDormand) signature smile

Fern’s (Frances McDormand) signature smile

Compassionate Directing

McDormand’s beautiful restraint is just one of many testaments of Chloé Zhao’s amazing directing and writing. I truly do believe that Zhao is a rising star by the confidence and competence she has over the film. Technically, the shots are always phenomenally composed and constantly give an ambiance of presence and place. There is never any wasting time on mediums but only long shots or close-ups that give a realistic, textured flair. She, too, writes a great backstory for Fern that explores the idea of feeling boxed in by what is sold to be “The American Dream”. Fern had a husband she adores, a suitable house in a small town, and had a steady job as a secretary — a profession traditionally thought of to be “ideal” for women. Even when Fern basically had all the ingredients for success in the melting pot, she still finds herself in a place that her former neighbors, of the shutdown town of Empire, consider “homeless”. Fern's backstory doubles in showing her apprehension to commitment, too, wanting to use the free time she has now to be alone with herself after spending her life stagnant, only moving from one household in childhood to the next in adulthood. It prioritizes a sort of self-love that is often sacrificed in movies in favor of the romantic kind. Its subtle subversion backed up by the carefully crafted shots is technically an amazing feat with its shyly interwoven style.

What I love about America is not necessarily the American Dream but the fact that there's so much spirit of fighting to continue to dream once the dreams are broken - Chloe Zhao

The film is so composed of feeling and internal reflection, so close-ups mean everything. Fern never gives us expositional dialogue about her life but it comes up in moments when she is telling strangers about things that mean most to her (plates that were given to her by her father) or in explaining why she left her home of 20 years to government workers she’s asking for help from. It gives the film an atmosphere of naturalness without contrived staging or over-the-top emotional scenes. There isn’t always a specific storyline in mind that it follows, too, but more a collection of events over the course of a year. It feels like bits of pieces of memories being remembered in chronological order — things that may seem insignificant but contribute to the winding arch of this one year in Fern’s life. It is, in essence, like you’re looking through a scrapbook and reliving the memories. Sometimes it does just feel as glossy as a photograph.

Linda May and Fern (Frances McDormand) do some self-care

Linda May and Fern (Frances McDormand) do some self-care

Well-Intentioned or Just For Show?

I do have few gripes with the movie — yet sometimes it feels like it intended to do this though. The use of an Amazon factory or Progressive sponsoring a job fair so they can use their factory and event simultaneously is both smart and rubs me the wrong way. It gives the film a sense of product placement since there is nothing directly bad that you see happen in either location — despite them both being significant players in the exploitation of working-class people. However, their quiet usage in a film about the mistreatment of the working-class has a sort of ironic meaning, where they let their names be proudly displayed but the companies themselves fail to understand that they’re part of the film’s central (subtle) villain. When one has the extra knowledge to keep in mind, it does make it semi-interesting but a tad of heavy-handedness is what would’ve taken the film to another level. I guess I expected more Tangerine with its realism and it came off a little more like the contrived good intentions of Up In The Air.

There is also the issue of poverty porn. Are we tourists looking into a world that is unknown to us for an hour and fifty minutes? Then we can go back to our heated homes and not have to worry about the things that Fern does. It doesn’t necessarily leave a bad taste in my mouth but it begs the question about representing poverty and lower-class communities in cinema. Yes, Fern finds an alternative lifestyle suitable and enjoyable but some of the more difficult aspects of that life are played for laughs (like the featuring of an entire scene of her defecating into a small bucket in her van). It’d be easier to enjoy the humor if it observed more of the realistic experiences humans go through in nuanced ways— like the types of people who often experience homelessness at higher rates (i.e. veterans, trans people, people of color). However, it really just focused on and gave voices to other white Americans. Fern even has a support system where she is offered (and encouraged) to stay with David and his son, her sister, and old friends from back home. However, this is a choice she starts to make because she wants to see the world and be free. And that is 100% admirable. But, pushing economic issues and financial insecurities to the sidelines (or side characters in this instance) in exchange for self-discovery is a great disservice to the story and what it could’ve been. In fact, Nomadland becomes most enticing when it discusses this like with Swankie, who wants to travel in her van instead of dying in a hospital when she has cancer, or the community of “nomads” that meet yearly to listen to real-life speaker Bob Wells. The film flourishes best and hits the hardest when real people and true voices talk about actual struggles they face, or the joy and community they find with their fellow nomads.

Chloe Zhao (left) and Frances McDormand (right) during filming

Chloe Zhao (left) and Frances McDormand (right) during filming

Conclusions

Per the Golden Globes, Nomadland won Best Motion Picture — Drama and Best Director. For this year and its competition, I would say it's well-deserved. However, its white centric-ness and over ambiguity would make it a less interesting Minari to me. As I have written about previously, the latter film touches hearts and issues by directly targeting structural injustices and balancing that by showing the love between an immigrant family. What Nomadland is missing is just that: balance and collectivity. While I admire Zhao’s tremendous expertise and Frances’ beautiful acting, it's hard not to feel the film wants (and fails) to go farther than it does and I don’t imagine coming back to it with teary eyes of hope like I would Minari. It's quiet, calm, and beautiful — a break from our current content frenzy but still very much a spectacle in its own right.

How Subtle is Too Subtle in ‘Nomadland’?