April 14, 2024

NOMADLAND (2020) – A sugar coated look at being houseless in America


Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Nomadland is based on a non fiction novel titled “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century” written by Jessica Bruder. It touches on the subject of the homeless or houseless, that is rarely featured in movies even though living in a van and travelling around America is widely practised, typically among retired old people. Nomadland gives a rare opportunity for us to have a glimpse at how life must be for such nomads and also understand what drives these people to do what they do.

Looking at Nomadland, one gets the feeling that Chloe Zhao’s interpretation has sugar coated how the houseless (not “homeless” as apparently there is a big difference) live and survive travelling on vans. The film does reflect the strong community environment in their co-dependence on each others’ support, and on wages earned from working part-time from wherever they can. Everybody we see are very nice and decent and super helpful to each other. In addition, we see them spending precious moments enjoying the sights and sounds of the natural beauty of Mother Nature in the places they pass through in their travels.

So what are the challenges that we may face when embarking on a houseless existence while travelling across an RV? We get to see Frances McDormand pee by the road side with the vast Nevada landscape providing a majestic backdrop. Later we get to see her take a pooh on bucket inside her van and suffer the discomfort of the smell of her own shit. Perhaps the most disagreeable situation reflected was when we see her cleaning the public toilets in the camp site where she had taken on a part time job. Her cleaning of the men’s toilet was rudely interrupted by a guy who barged in to take a leak while she was still in the midst of cleaning the place. When her van breakdown, or she has no spare tire for a flat, she miraculously gets transport to have it looked at in a garage.

I enjoyed watching Frances McDormand’s usual high standard in performance. Director Chloe Zhao also demonstrates a real talent in giving an interesting look at what is potentially a dreary and dull subject. The film had almost a documentary feel to it at times. The film’s supporting cast is made up of some real houseless people and they come across as very real and believable people. I was particularly impressed by Bob Wells, who is the real life houseless, van dweller, who started a movement that provides a support system for the nomad community. His few scenes were inspiration and exceptional. Perhaps he should get the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor rather than the accolades that will no doubt be thrown to Frances and Chloe.

My reservations on Nomadland is that I felt it consciously avoided to show the hardship and real challenges faced by such nomads. It also did not dwell deep enough to the motivations that drives these people to do what they do. Perhaps Nomadland 2 will help address these.

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