by Michael Young | July 23, 2021
8 min read

Nomadland movie posterEditor’s Note: Continuing with his reviews of “movies with a conscience,” the Sun’s film critic assesses whether the acclaim for “Nomadland,” which swept the 2020 Oscars with six nominations and three wins (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Leading Actress) was merited. Available on Netflix DVD and Hulu and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, Apple TV and Google Play

Early on in “Nomadland,” Fern (the central character played by Frances McDormand) is in her camper van when she suddenly grabs a big white bucket, pulls down her pants, plants her butt on top and proceeds to noisily defecate. This scene defines a lot of the essential character of this movie about RV life: somewhat desperate circumstances, starkly primitive conditions and a simple, distinctive and honest acknowledgement of life’s basics. An instructor at a camp for nomadic RVers counsels that “You have to manage your sh*t!”—something Fern clearly knows how to do.

The scene is also representative of the film’s curious contrasts. On the one hand, there are beautiful twilight shots of some of the American West’s most iconic landscapes; South Dakota’s Badlands are an important location. On the other, there is the stark reality of people living their lives out of vans and pickup campers, moving from one RV park to another national park campground, not because they really want to take a road trip, but because they simply don’t have any other place to go after their permitted stays are up. Maybe these “nomads” live a nearly idyllic life, free of the binds that property imposes. Or maybe they often struggle with simple things like getting enough food. Sure, you could say they have all the freedom in the world. But, clearly, they lack the resources to enjoy it. Is director/adapted screenplay writer/film editor Chloe Zhao celebrating the rich beauty of the American Dream that western landscapes seem to promise? Or is she documenting how, for many, that dream has turned into a slow-moving nightmare.

A. O. Scott (New York Times) wrote: “This tension between stability and uprooting, between the illusory consolations of home and the risky lure of the open road, lies at the heart of Nomadland, Chloe Zhao’s expansive and intimate third feature.” He rated it a “Critics Pick” and, according to Metascore, critics generally rank it third out of all of last year’s 41 Oscar-nominated films (ahead of every other American-made movie!)

Zhao adapted this screenplay from a book of the same name as the film by Jessica Bruder, and she earned an Oscar nomination for that work, as well as for film editing. She garnered an Oscar win as Best Director, and, of course, in case you’ve forgotten, the Academy chose this film as 2020’s Best Picture. (That gives Zhao four Oscar nominations and two wins for just this movie!) Zhao’s significant other, cinematographer Joshua James Richards, was nominated for an Oscar for his work, as well. The critics and Academy voters alike loved this movie and did everything in their power to promote appreciation of Chinese-born, Mount-Holyoke-educated Zhao’s personal filmmaking style. Zhao has a fascination with the American West and a preference for social realism, both found in “Nomadland.”

Did Frances MacDormand as Fern give one of the “most subtle and refined” performances of her career, or was she just a mechanism for drawing out the compelling stories of the real-life nomads who played themselves in the movie? Source: Searchlight Pictures

Zhao is not the only accomplished woman involved in the making of this movie. Frances McDormand won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress for her performance, which Brian Tallerico ( labels “one of the most subtle and refined of her career.” And she does just fine here, but the role is not very demanding. Fern seems to serve as a mechanism to draw out the thoughts and feelings of the other nomads, to prompt them to tell their stories.

And that approach is where I start to have trouble with this film. I’m not quite sure Zhao really had a plan of where she wanted to go with this film. Was she directing or just reacting to events as they unfolded around her?

“Nomadland” certainly has a strong element of documentary to it. Supposedly, the scene where Fern craps in the bucket was real. McDormand had a case of indigestion, was in the van with the cameraman and had to relieve herself—so she did! With the camera rolling! Now is that acting or is that simply recording events as they happen?

And what about the fact that McDormand and David Straithairn—who plays something of a romantically interested partner—are the only two actors in the film? All the rest of the nomads traveling around the campgrounds of the West. In fact, the “documentary” nature of this movie is so much a part of its fabric that the nomads never realized until near the end that McDormand was not really one of them. Apparently, they thought the film crew—living out of vans and campers just like McDormand—was there filming Fern for a documentary of nomad life.

I’m not sure how I feel about that—I’m having some issues about the director’s integrity.  You may recall that I criticized in a previous review “The Mole Agent,” one of last year’s Academy-nominated feature-length documentaries, because it was filmed under false pretenses. The filmmakers had hired someone to play the role of a nursing home resident whose interactions with other residents were then filmed. In my view, that was misleading the residents and manipulating their feelings in service of the movie’s plot. How is that different from the making of “Nomadland”? Frances McDormand is definitely not a “nomad” in real life, regardless of the fact that she lived that life for a few weeks and acted, however well, the role.

But it’s not just a question of what “category” the movie belongs in: documentary vs. drama. The issue has more to do more with blurring the boundaries between the subjects of the film and the filmmakers and the resulting artificial relationship between them. It also suggests a lack of clarity of purpose on the part of Zhao.

This lack of clarity is most exposed in one of the key shortcomings of this film. While “Nomadland” seems to work fairly well in evoking an empathetic response toward the nomads, in my opinion, it fails to assign responsibility for their plight. The movie focuses, at the beginning, on the company town of Empire, Nevada, which has been decimated by the closure of a United States Gympsum Corporation mine. That is the event that sent the widowed Fern out on the road—too poor to buy a home and too old, really, to find another job. U.S. Gympsum essentially abandoned Fern, and others like her, after the many years in which she and her late husband worked hard to build corporate wealth.

And then there is the periodic employment the nomads obtain at Amazon warehouses. Their work there is hard and, almost always, temporary. While working, they are given a campground permit. But once dismissed, they are, again, on their own. It is interesting that the New York Times recently published a story about the extremely high turnover at Amazon warehouses. The Times reported that the turnover rate is high by design. It reflects a belief by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that workers are inherently lazy and that the best way to achieve high productivity is to make sure workers experience high levels of insecurity. Don’t let them get too comfortable; rapid turnover ensures “fresh blood.” Unfortunately, instead of portraying Amazon as the predatory organization it is Zhao presents it as more of a rescuer of nomads, a place to earn a few bucks when needed.

So, the Academy and most critics loved this movie and praised it with words like “subtle,” “grounded,” “genuine,” “honest” and “empathetic.” Curiously, those are the same words they all used to describe “Minari,” a 2020 drama about a Korean-American family’s move to an Arkansas farm. This is another case where I disagreed with most of the critics.  And, as was true with “Minari,” the viewing public isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about “Nomadland” as the critics. The IMDB audience rating places Zhao’s film 17th out of last year’s 41 Oscar-nominated movies, pretty much right in the middle.

Look, I love Frances McDormand and thought she was terrific in “Fargo,” “North Country” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” But just because she can take a crap in a bucket, does not, in my opinion, earn her a Best Actress Oscar.

Maybe because I own an RV, have spent a lot of time in both commercial, state and national campgrounds and have encountered a lot of what we called “full-timers,” I don’t think this movie is nearly pointed enough. Maybe because my wife and I are really just one major life crisis from being nomads ourselves, I see how it fails to articulate the real reason these people are where they are. And, if its value as a movie is more as an exposé on a really awful situation, then it doesn’t make it awful enough. This topic does not deserve “subtlety.”

MaryAnn Johanson (the FlickFilosopher) is one of the few critics who did capture the tragedy of social and economic inequality.  She called “Nomadland” a “bittersweet dirge for those Americans who have come to realize that the promise of the nation has always been limited and exclusionary, and for far too many, an absolutely empty promise.” Simply put, this movie needs more anger.  3.5 stars

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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