Nomadland Travels Toward Academy Awards

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

This is the time of year that movie critics start ruminating over the year’s Academy Award nominees, in search of a prediction.

We will cut through all that elite pondering and tell you that the winner will likely be “Nomadland.” In fact, it may be a trifecta, winning Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It was nominated for six in all.

The film has already won the Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director. And it is the first film ever to take home the top prizes from both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. So far, it has won 203 awards, not to mention 145 nominations.

Is “Nomadland” the beneficiary of a weak Oscar season, the competition lessened by a year of movie production brought to its knees by the COVID pandemic? Yes and no.

One cannot speculate on the possible Oscar-worthiness of movies not made. But the others nominated – “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The Father,” “Mank,” “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Sound of Metal,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” – are no slouches.

“Mank” led the pack with 10 nominations. The Academy loves Hollywood stories. And “Mank” is a biopic about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter of “Citizen Kane.”
And “Judas” and “Chicago 7” deal with black and counterculture history, lived by some of Hollywood’s directors and writers.

But our money is on “Nomadland.” The film taps into timely emotions. It reflects a certain angst and despair that bubbles up from our subconscious, after having our world turned topsy-turvy by a year of sequestering and isolation. It describes one of the “new normals” in our society.

Interestingly, “Nomadland” is a fusion of drama and documentary. Some of the actors are actual people playing a version of themselves. Plunked down in the middle of this lonesome story is two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), an example of perfect casting. Known for her portrayals of quirky, headstrong female characters, she is an actor who can communicate inner emotions with few lines of script.

As it happens, McDormand in effect cast herself in the role by optioning the same-named book by Jessica Bruder, and then convincing Chloé Zhao (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me”) to direct it. The film is set in the vast deserts of the American West … and Zhao had demonstrated with her film “The Rider” that no one gets that desolate region better than she does.

“Nomadland” looks at a subculture of vandwellers who move about the country, living minimalist and independent lives, forsaking the home and hearth that most people embrace.

You can find “Nomadland” on Hulu – or at Tropic Cinema.

In it, Frances McDormand plays a woman named Fern whose husband has died, whose job has gone away, and whose town (Empire, Nevada) has slowly blown away after the gypsum plant closed. So she hits the road in her Ford Econoline, eventually hooking up with other nomads who live the lives of gypsies.

The book was subtitled “Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” The story’s gravitas comes from casting real-life vandwellers in key roles. As Zhao says, “Everything happens simultaneously, because once we meet someone like Swankie, we realize she has to be in the film, and that informs the journey that Fern is going to take.”

Central to this meandering tribe is Bob Wells, founder of the Homes on Wheels Alliance, a charity organization dedicated to the promotion of vandwelling. A man with a Santa Claus beard, Wells is credited with inspiring thousands of people to embrace a lifestyle based on dwelling in vans.

But Frances McDormand is the glue that hold the story together.

“The filmmakers refer to Frances as a docent, which I really love,” says Bruder, the book’s author. That is to say, McDormand guides us through this new dystopian world where people have embraced an alternate lifestyle.

As Fern says, “I’m not homeless. I’m just…houseless. Not the same thing, right?”

The plot, like the lifestyle, is minimalist. Fern meets other nomads, forms a friendship with Dave (David Strathairn), visits her perfect-life sister, visits Dave’s well-grounded family, revisits her old home in Empire, then hits the road again.

I watched the film with subtitles turned on. The background music was often described on the screen as “pensive.” That’s a good word to describe “Nomadland” – pensive.

You’ll go away with a sense of loneliness … and belonging. Even if it’s to a tribe of wanderers whose motto is “See you down the road.”

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