The Oscars, and the benighted awards season, come and go with a whimper. It’s a tough gig to organise a celebration of excellence in film during a year when cinemas largely remained closed. Of course, if you did find an open cinema, and were prepared to brave the virus to get there, perhaps a drama about the hard-scrabble existence of today’s societal nomads wouldn’t be top of your list, but in 2021, we’ll warm ourselves by the burning trash-can of abandoned dreams.
That’s certainly the philosophy of Fern (Frances McDormand), the central character in Chloe Zhao’s meditative character study. Taking inspiration from Jessica Bruder’s book about the sparse communities of downtrodden folk who are still trying to get their lives on track after the Great Recession of 2008/9, we first meet Fern as she completes a seasonal work-stint at one of Amazon’s utterly sinister-sounding ‘fulfilment centres’. With no safety net in terms of health or unemployment insurance, Fern retreats to the van she lives in, and reluctantly heads to a commune in Arizona. A friendship with David (David Strathairn) provides some light relief until ill-health and family problems come between them. With little more than her relationships to support her, Fern contemplates an outsider existence that is precariously balanced on finance she does not have.
Miserablism isn’t a great look in Hollywood, not even for a micro-budget indie, but McDormand, pictured sitting on the toilet in her van here, has no vanity when it comes to depicting the tougher side of life. She’s been an engaging star in Fargo and Three Billboards, and makes Fern feel like a real person; it helps that some of those she encounters are played by real-life nomads, and the film has the flinty feel of authenticity. That said, pain is something hard to depict without accusations of poverty porn; Nomadland’s studied view of Fern’s predicament may well be too bleak for general audiences, already exhausted by the incessant hail of bad news. Like Fern, Nomadland could and should have been a contender; it’s a film of quiet values that should at least have garnered an awards-friendly run at the box-office. Zhao’s drama is a haunting, depressing film about man’s inhumanity to our fellow man or woman, a Grapes of Wrath for the new, withering century before us.
What does all this mean for the flickering spectre of cinema? For some, the backslapping has just begun. “I think I’m going to cry’ said a BAFTA spokesman as the shortlists arrived, ‘A good job well done,’ chimed a Film 4 executive. The awards nominees certainly reflected industry diversity, but that was the definition of a false positive since their competition didn’t turn up. The same shortlists also couldn’t help but reflect the collapse of revenue streams for indie and commercial cinema; the operation may well have been a success, but the patient died on the table some time ago. A pack of hopefuls like Nomadland had their release dates shifted again and again in search of a decent chance at finding audiences, but time ran out for us to see them; like Fern, we will just have to hunker down in the rubble and pray for better times but without some radical, revolutionary thinking from the top down, cinema’s days as a mass, populist entertainment appear numbered.
It’s a measure of how completely confused cinema currently is in 2021 that Nomadland will make it’s UK debut on the Disney channel, yup, the Disney channel, in the UK from April 30th 2021.
Thanks to Premier Awards Comms for advanced access to this title.