Monday, February 22, 2021

Nomadland and Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Small Potatoes

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020).

Fern (played by Frances McDormand), the protagonist of Nomadland, loses her job and her home in a Nevada company town after the 2008 financial downturn and takes to the road in an RV, traveling through the west to wherever she can find work. The writer-director Chloé Zhao, dramatizing a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder (its subtitle is Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century), initially presents the character’s itinerant lifestyle as an economic necessity that she makes the best of. But in the second half of the film, when we see her pass up two offers (of different kinds) to settle down, we learn that she’s always been resistant to staying in one place – that she only lived for years in tiny Empire, Nevada (which ceased to exist after the company shuttered), because her husband, now dead of cancer, loved it so much. The movie seems to be moving in two different directions at the same time – to be commenting on the way the downturn uprooted the lives of many working-class people and to be promoting the nomadic lifestyle as a viable choice. Dramatically it’s confused.

But I don’t think that’s the movie’s major problem. Nomadland is typical of a number of recent movies – Minari, about a family of Koreans on a farm in Arkansas, is another example – whose single virtue is that they’re supposed to be about real people but that are so drab in both conception and execution, and so banal in the writing, that I couldn’t work up the smallest interest in the characters.  I gave up on Minari after forty minutes because my eyes were glazing over, but I fought to get all the way through Nomadland because it’s being taken so seriously. Perhaps that’s partly because of McDormand’s involvement in the project, and partly because some of the cast are actual nomads: a woman (Linda May) who mentors Fern, another (Swankie) who refuses treatment for a returning cancer because she prefers to die on the road, embracing to the end a life that gives her pleasure, and a man (Bob Wells) whose way of dealing with his son’s suicide has been to act as a guiding force for the nomadic community. It’s easy to think of movies where the authenticity of non-professional actors has enhanced a movie; De Sica used them regularly in his neo-realist masterpieces like Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. But Zhao has no skill with them – she just lets them talk and assumes that we’ll be so knocked out by the fact that they are exactly who they say they are that we won’t actually expect them to act. But my mind kept wandering. Besides, neo-realism doesn’t work without lyricism; we don’t walk away profoundly moved from a movie like Shoeshine just because it chronicles the economic realities of post-World War II Rome. Though the cinematographer of Nomadland, Joshua James Reynolds, comes up with some lovely images of the landscape, any lyricism in this film is down to him.

Frances McDormand is, of course, an actor; for all of Zhao’s political commitment to the nomads, I can’t imagine that she would have considered asking a non-pro to carry her movie. I’ve often liked McDormand, and though I didn’t care for her in either of her Oscar-winning performances, in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I found both movies despicable and I didn’t blame her for her failure to transcend the condescension of the first and the cheap cynicism of the second. But I really hated her in Nomadland. Except for a few silent melancholy moments, mostly in the second half, I found her hopelessly phony. She’s trying with all her might to convince us she’s a “real” person, and I couldn’t get past the acting. She’s not fraudulent in the way Glenn Close is as the grandma in Hillbilly Elegy; McDormand doesn’t have Close’s brand of movie-star vanity, and she doesn’t look ridiculous. But she’s fraudulent just the same. The only overlap between her and the real nomads in the ensemble is that she doesn’t give us a reason to watch her character either. I found Fern’s heartiness wearying; she’s like a summer camp counselor whipping up her charges (us in this case) to show a little enthusiasm.

When David Strathairn shows up in the movie as Dave, who befriends Fern and has a not-quite-romantic connection with her, you get a strong sense of what it’s been missing, because Strathairn is a marvelous understated actor who always animates the characters he plays and makes them distinctive. And I wanted to see more of a young man named Ryan Aquino, who has two brief scenes as a nomad with a rough-hewn softness and sweetness.  Otherwise Nomadland mostly made me think fondly back to Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s 2018 movie about a teenage girl who lives outside society because of her widowed war-vet father’s PTSD. The late scenes in that movie are set in the woods among a community of people who reside on the edge of society but offer the heroine (played by Thomasin McKenzie) the social interaction she has been hungry for without realizing it. I believed every word of Leave No Trace and I was deeply engaged in its story and deeply moved by it. It’s simply not enough to put real people on the screen; you need filmmaking talent to know what to do with them and to fashion some beauty out of their story. I felt extorted by Nomadland – as if Zhao were challenging me to be a good enough human being to care about the characters even if her movie doesn’t bother to provide a single reason why I should.

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).

Never Rarely Sometimes Always – a terrible title – is the kind of intimate movie that has always won kudos for sensitivity. There’s no doubt that Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed it, has a feel for her character, Autumn, a teenage girl from a small town in Pennsylvania who travels to New York City with her cousin Skylar – who’s also her best friend – to get an abortion. Hittman is also finely tuned to the bond between adolescent girls who instinctively close ranks against the adult world to keep a secret. She’s much better with actors than Zhao, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always didn’t make me angry as Nomadland did. But it did make me restless, because it lacks imagination; the narrative is bland. We never find out who got Autumn pregnant, and when a counselor at the abortion clinic asks her a series of questions about her sexual history (the choice of answers runs the gamut of “never, rarely, seldom, always”), we infer that the girl has been treated very badly but Hittman doesn’t fill in the blanks for us. I admired that choice, which stops the picture from turning into a teen melodrama, but if we’re not going to get much background then we need more details over the course of the two days the cousins are together in New York than the rather clinical ones the movie supplies.

Sidney Flanigan, who plays Autumn, doesn’t make a single false move, but her inexperience shows in the smallness of her emotional range. If the movie had been half an hour long I would have been very impressed with her performance, but after the first half an hour you feel you’ve seen everything she can do – for this moment in her career, anyway. Talia Ryder, who plays Skylar, is similarly convincing and similarly hampered. The only person on screen I found interesting to watch was a Québecois actor named Théodore Pellerin who plays Jasper, a college-age boy who tries to make a connection with the girls on a bus, texts them to invite them to a club and becomes their only source of money when they run out. Jasper is geeky but he’s better at negotiating the city than Skylar and Autumn are, and he’s complicated: Pellerin always seems to be implying more than one motivation for his actions. There’s more to him than meets the eye, and less to the movie.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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