“Nomadland” Review

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Searchlight Pictures

Francis McDormand stars in “Nomadland.”

Eva Moschitto, Staff Writer

Films, unlike movies — a rather pretentious distinction I enjoy making — are best enjoyed alone. Which is why, upon viewing “Nomadland” for the first time, I found myself frustratedly fixating on the insect sticking stubbornly to the Emerson lounge TV screen and the Perspectives on World History Quizlet glowing faintly beside me. “Wait, is this a documentary?” a friend interrupted.

Ignoring my own preference, I watched one of this year’s strongest Best Picture contenders with a group of friends. “No,” I responded. “I think it’s based on a memoir,” someone added.

My friends were right — inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction account “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” writer/director Chloé Zhao’s film feels unscripted. The story follows Fern (Frances McDormand) as she deserts the town where she worked and lived with her late husband in order to rediscover community and the meaning of “home.”

While Fern’s life might appear foreign, you will surely recognize aspects of her story  — awkward run-ins at Walmart, endless stretches of highway and crackling campfires — thanks to “Nomadland”’s intuitive cinematography. This, coupled with McDormand’s brazen honesty, makes it seem only natural to hum along with Fern as she stares down the road or sing with van-dwellers as they gather around the fire.

You might smirk as Fern proclaims, “We be the bitches of the badlands,” or smile as she thumbs through worn family photographs, or sniffle as her fellow nomad concludes: ‘One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”

Fern surveys her surroundings with unblinking egalitarianism. In explaining why she still wears her wedding ring, Fern announces, “I’m not gonna take that off,” with the same pragmatism with which she scrubs vomit from public toilets and repairs shards of a shattered family heirloom with a sighing “okay.”

In cutting cleverly from grazing hens to roast chicken and wedding rings to can-openers, Zhao reveals the mysteries of death and love in the mundane. In weaving Shakespeare’s Macbeth and “Sonnet 18” throughout Fern’s narration, Zhao infuses the barren landscape Fern inhabits with majesty.

Fern understands this simultaneity — when asked by a bystander, “Hey, find anything [interesting]?” she responds enthusiastically, “Rocks!”

“Nomadland” looks at life with breathtaking, unsentimental clarity and asks audiences to relinquish themselves to its meanderings. You could talk straight through “Nomadland” and never know you missed more than a disjointed, pseudo-documentary, but if you pay attention, watching the film once will never be enough.

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