Review: Nomadland : Pop Culture Happy Hour The new film Nomadland is about a woman named Fern who's lost her husband, her home and her entire community: a company town that collapsed when the company did. She's played by Frances McDormand, and in Chloé Zhao's film, she falls into a new community of people who live on the road, out of vans and RVs.
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'Nomadland' Is An Empathetic, Immersive Journey

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'Nomadland' Is An Empathetic, Immersive Journey

'Nomadland' Is An Empathetic, Immersive Journey

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The new film "Nomadland" isn't just about a woman who's lost her husband and her home. It's about a woman who's lost her entire community, a company town that collapsed when the company did. She is abruptly at the mercy of seasonal work and limited choices.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Her name is Fern. And she's played by the tremendous Frances McDormand. And in Chloe Zhao's film, she falls into a new community of people who live on the road out of vans and RVs. "Nomadland" is a major player in this award season, and it's easy to understand why. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about Nomadland on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Stephen from his home studio bunker is Glen Weldon of NPR's Arts Desk. Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Hey, Linda.

HOLMES: And also with us from her home studio is Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS: Hello, Linda.

HOLMES: It's always good when we're all here together, all here together to have a chat about "Nomadland." So "Nomadland" is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder. It's about these folks who are, in many cases, older. They're sort of battered by economic changes, particularly the economic meltdown of 2008. They are left with very few options. And this fictional story about Fern was written by Chloe Zhao, who is also the director, as we mentioned. For Fern, this nomad lifestyle is connected to her grief over her husband's death. And it leaves her at, really, the mercy of the weather and other people. She has no access, really, to health care, any kind of security. But there's also, I think it's safe to say, a freedom in it that she appreciates at times. She has a chance to see new things and be independent. There are a lot of kind of sweeping vistas of the American West and Great Plains. And she starts to develop a relationship with a guy named Dave, who's played by David Strathairn. And, obviously, that complicates her wanderings somewhat. Glen, what did you think about "Nomadland"?

WELDON: I mean, this is pretty great, right? I mean, fair warning. It is unhurried. It is discursive. It's also - as you mentioned, it's in love with the natural environment, which is a very Chloe Zhao real thing. It's smartly a film that teaches you how to watch it, because in those opening minutes, we, the audience, are that woman that Fern meets at the store. We're worried about her. We're the manager of that gas station. We want her to find a shelter for the night because it's going to be cold. She's been dealt a couple serious blows, and the story of the film is her finding an equilibrium. It's not perfect, and it's fragile and takes some work to maintain. We see the work it takes to maintain, but she's got the strength and resolve to maintain it. She finds a community, a found family, which is something queer folk know a little something about.

That said, you take Frances McDormand out of the equation - I'm not sure I'm still as invested because that actor is just an empathy engine. It just radiates from her even when the role she's playing is more comedic, as it is in "Fargo," or even when it's completely underwritten and one-note like it was in "Three Billboards," there's not a trace of condescension in any role she plays human condescension or socioeconomic condescension. No actorly remove, no sense of judgment because Frances McDormand is a woman who graduated from the Yale School of Drama. She's married to a Coen brother. And what do the Coen brothers love to do more than make fun of the yokels? There's nothing about her holding Fern at a remove. When she's packing Amazon boxes, that's Fern packing Amazon boxes, even though it's Frances McDormand clearly packing Amazon boxes. The scene where she goes on quite a bit about how she got more counter space in her van. You play that wrong, and that is a Hollywood actor doing a ride along. That's fake. But, I mean, there's something about her. You just fall in love with Fern, the way she smiles without opening her mouth. There's such pain in it, but there's joy. Now, did I need Fern to quote Shakespeare at me? No. Did I need the scene with her sister where she tells Fern that Fern has always been strong and special and smart and smells nice and is kind to puppies? No, I didn't need that, either. Those moments felt like that was the film not trusting itself, kind of putting on some training wheels. So in the end, I think I was more taken by this amazing performance than by the movie itself.

HOLMES: Interesting. Stephen, what about you?

THOMPSON: I was taken by the amazing performance and the film itself. I think this is a wonderful piece of really subtle storytelling. It is so thoughtful. It is so respectful and careful and clever. You can tell that this movie and its makers spent time with its subjects and really got invested in their lives. This movie could have so easily tilted into mawkishness. It could have so easily tilted into cynicism. It so easily could have tilted into kind of capital-I issues based kind of thundering. And it never, ever does. I mean, it's funny. Glen mentioned Frances McDormand's performance in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," a movie that kind of purported to be About the real America and kind of the real underbelly of America. And it did so by throwing grotesques at us. And this movie does the exact opposite. It is a really human and lovely movie, and it surrounds Frances McDormand and David Strathairn with nomads, with people who actually live this lifestyle, and lets them tell their stories, albeit fictionalized versions of their stories. And I just think that works beautifully well. You can tell in spots when this movie is working with nonprofessional actors, and you can kind of feel that. But for the most part, I just got totally lost in it. It is - as Glen said, it's unhurried, but I didn't find it slow at all. I loved this movie.

HOLMES: Yeah. Before I go to Aisha, I want to play a little bit of - Stephen talked about these nonprofessional actors. There's a piece in Vulture where Chloe Zhao talks about the fact that she's worked with people like this in a couple different movies. There's a woman named Swankie. That's her name in the movie, and it's her name in real life. And she talks a little bit about her life. I want to hear a little bit of her monologue about her history.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOMADLAND")

SWANKIE: (As Swankie) I'm going to be 75 this year. And I think I've lived a pretty good life. I've seen some really neat things, kayaking all those places - moose in the wild on a river in Idaho. And come around a bend - was a cliff and find hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff and the swallows flying all around and reflecting in the water, so it looks like I'm flying with the swallows. And they're under me and over me and all around me. And little babies are hatching out, and egg shells are falling out of the nest, landing on the water and floating on the water, these little white shells. It was like - it was just so awesome. I felt like I'd done enough. My life was complete. If I died right then that moment, I'd be perfectly fine.

HOLMES: Yeah. So I think you get a sense there of the fact that you do get a very real person talking about these experiences that she's had. Aisha, you saw "Nomadland" first a while ago, as I did. Can you tell me a little bit about how you feel about it?

HARRIS: Well, I've now watched it twice. And I definitely think that the second time around, it grew on me even more. I think, you know, after hearing that clip of Swankie talking, that to me was one of the things that really stood out. And I didn't know this until after the first time I watched the film. But knowing afterwards that these - some of these characters were were not actors. They were themselves. And you can really tell that in just, like, the very plaintive way of speaking that I really appreciate. It felt at times like I was - could have been dropped in the middle of an Errol Morris documentary, listening to one of those characters just really speak like they normally would. There's no put upon airs. And so hearing them tell these stories just really, really worked for me, and I really enjoyed it. Now, I think there is, like, a version of this movie that Glen sort of hints at that this could have been.

There's a moment early on where Fern has an opportunity to adopt a dog who has been left behind by its owner. And she's like, no, I don't want them. And there could have been a version of this movie where she does take them. And then, of course, we have the dogs. And myself being a dog owner - I know, Linda, you're a dog owner, too. We love our dogs. But that is a very familiar beat to have a pet animal, an animal that the protagonist in this wilderness befriends and learns to love and learns to care for and all those things. Like, that could have been the movie. And I think the fact that we have that moment, and she's just like, no, it's a real testament to Fern's character and the way she is imbued by Frances McDormand. She is a person who's very stubborn. She wants her life the way it is. People are worried about her, but she's, you know, dealing with her grief while also accepting that this is kind of the life that she actually likes. And I think her sort of coming to terms with that, I think, is a really interesting progression to see. And I really, really loved it. And I think that it is a really interesting movie to watch during this time when we're all contemplating our own lives and what we are doing with it and and death and some of us having to confront death in ways that we hadn't before. And I do want to warn people that it can be kind of heavy in that sense. And so if you're dealing with things, maybe wait to watch it. But I think, absolutely, it handles those things in such a very tender and thoughtful but not sentimental way. But I think a lot of people will appreciate and that I appreciated.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think, you know, because she does have a family and she goes and is able to have contact with her sister. Glen referenced a conversation about sort of the sister sort of saying, this is - you know, you've kind of always been independent. And I think the purpose of that for me is to sort of solidify the underpinnings of this story, which are that delicate balance between - Fern's life is very, very difficult, and there's no question that a big part of what the nonfiction book was about is just the ravages of the way capitalism is currently operating on - particularly not exclusively but particularly older people who, you know, have very, very little economic support, very little resources. The film is very blunt about the fact that there is a lot of real, genuine hardship and difficulty for these folks, without which they might not have made these choices. But it also is respectful, I think, of the fact that there is something in it that is, as I said in the intro - that is freeing for them and that they are able to enjoy. And I think for a lot of people, when you watch this movie, you'll find yourself thinking, like, what if I lived this way someday? Not everybody, obviously. And you'll know immediately - if you're me, you'll know immediately. Well, of course, I wouldn't do it like this. I'd have a million backup plans that these folks do not have access to. And, you know, I would do this completely differently, which is how you know the - sort of the hardship element. But that's something about the travel, the opportunity to see new things and meet new people - has a genuine appeal. And I think when they have her make that family visit - and there's some other - there are some other things that happen in the story, too, that I think are meant to underscore the fact that it's it's hardship, but it's not just misery and despair. It's people finding a way forward for themselves, given their circumstances.

WELDON: Yeah. And the nature of the hardship isn't just the obvious one. I mean, I said earlier that, you know, we we worry about her, and then we kind of understand that she's finding an equilibrium. We still worry about her - I mean, her physical safety from the elements and also from others. I mean, she's all alone out there. I'm curious if you guys felt this way, too, but I was so conditioned by pulpier and more lurid films that, you know, whenever a guy would come up to her van and knock on it, I was like, what's going to happen? Is this movie going to take a turn? Can you trust this David Strathairn guy? I'm not sure I can. Oh, there's a gathering in the desert based on videos of - you're watching of this one dude? That's kind of cult-y (ph). I will enjoy seeing it a second time, knowing I can relax more.

THOMPSON: Well, it's interesting. You know, we're talking about this movie in the context, a little bit, of Oscar season. And I think this is a movie we're going to be talking about a lot more as the Oscars eventually finally happen in late April. And, you know, Chloe Zhao is very likely to be nominated for best director. I think she's very likely to be nominated for best screenplay. But I really hope that she is not ignored in the context of best editing. I know that, Glen, you talked about this movie being unhurried and maybe that it might scan as slow for some people. But, man, when you think about what a feat of editing this movie is, how much footage must have been shot - and this movie does not have, like, a big, overstuffed plot. It is a movie that meanders very much by design. The fact that she manages to keep that movie compelling the entire way while stitching together a lot of - I'm sure there is a lot of really boring stuff on the cutting room floor that - to leave behind this movie that works as well as it does. I was really, really impressed with how well-paced this thing is.

HARRIS: Yeah. I would also jump in and just say that one of the things that I found really interesting about the film is that for the first part of the movie, we see Fern going to work at an Amazon shipment packing center. And there is a version of this movie, as well, that could have been - made this sort of Amazon the villain. And I think with all the things that we bring into this, knowing what what Amazon is like, it's a testament to Zhao's ability to show restraint in that sense. She gave an interview with Deadline where - well, first of all, fun tidbit - apparently, Frances McDormand wrote a letter to Amazon, and that is how she - Zhao was able to shoot there.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Yep.

HARRIS: And so that's great. And it's great to have some star power behind you. But also, Zhao said in that interview that it was a conscious decision not to make it so that Amazon was the obvious villain because she feels that the real issue is elder care and the fact that we have all of these people of their age - 50s, 60s - people who do not have the safety nets that they should have at that age, being forced to work in these conditions. And if they weren't working at a Amazon, they'd be working - I mean, we see Fern at one point digging up lots of - I don't - I think it was rocks or...

WELDON: Beets.

HARRIS: ...Giant things. And when you're in your 50s and 60s, you should not be doing that sort of manual labor anymore.

One of the great things about this movie is that it really is about this other sort of looming issue other than the obvious one. It's not Amazon per se. It is our entire American structure of capitalism.

HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you think about "Nomadland." Come and find us at facebook.com/pchh or on Twitter @PCHH. When we come back, it's going to be time for our favorite segment, What's Making Us Happy This Week. So come right back.

Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, What's Making Us Happy This Week. Glen Weldon, what's making you happy this week?

WELDON: "M.O.D.O.K." - M-O-D-O-K - is a Marvel show coming to Hulu. It doesn't have a premiere date yet, but they're releasing a lot more information about it all of a sudden, so it's on its way. It is a stop-motion animated series made with the kind of action figures people like me used to play with back in the '70s - Mego action figures, if that means anything to anybody. And if you're thinking, oh, that sounds a lot like "Robot Chicken," bingo. That is exactly the vibe this show is laying down. Now, M.O.D.O.K. - I don't have to tell you, Linda - is a Marvel villain. He is a giant head in a floating chair. M.O.D.O.K., of course, stands for Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.

WELDON: Obviously. And if you're wondering why they're not - it's not M.O.D.O.F.K. because there's that for in there, you can come here and sit by me 'cause that's exactly what I've always thought.

THOMPSON: It's a lowercase F.

WELDON: Yes, exactly. I also like that he's designed only for killing, so he's bespoke evil. This is a goofy character I've always loved. The show is goofy. The premise is that M.O.D.O.K.'s evil organization is bankrupt, so he sells it to a Google-like company who starts making changes. Patton Oswalt voices M.O.D.O.K., which seems weirdly inevitable. I mean, if you're not going to go with a Hodgman, you go with an Oswalt in that role. The voice cast includes Sam Richardson, Ben Schwartz, Melissa Fumero, Beck Bennett. So if you miss "Robot Chicken," here it is again basically. It's exactly that. That is exactly what it's serving you. That is "M.O.D.O.K.," coming soon to Hulu.

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. Stephen Thompson, what is making you happy this week?

THOMPSON: Well, one of the joys of Disney+ is that it has really livened up our family movie nights from a standpoint of filling in the gaps in each family member's Disney viewing history. For me, those gaps tend to be in the '90s, I had never seen "Hercules" or "Tarzan" or "Hunchback." My daughter has never seen a lot of the classic Disney, and my partner had never seen "Tangled" from 2010. "Tangled" is a really wonderful and, it seems, kind of strangely overlooked Disney movie. It kind of bridges the gap between traditional Disney animation and Pixar. It's kind of as Disney and Pixar are merging. I think it's been overshadowed a little bit by "Frozen," which expands on some of its themes.

"Tangled," for those who don't know, is basically the story of Rapunzel, who doesn't realize she's a Disney princess in this movie. But it is a wonderfully funny and witty and charming film that I hadn't seen since it came out in theaters. I think it's one of the first movies we ever talked about on this show. It has aged wonderfully well. That horse remains one of my favorite Disney characters of all time. If you have kids who have been just swimming in that "Frozen" pool over and over and over again, as I know several of my friend's kids have been, I really recommend dipping back into "Tangled." Like I said, it's aged wonderfully well, and it's what's making me happy this week.

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. Aisha Harris, what is making you happy this week?

HARRIS: Well, if you loved "Bridesmaids," the 2011 film starring Kristen Wiig, but you wish that it had more talking crabs and musical numbers and just really weird absurdist humor, then you will probably like "Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar." This is a weird - very weird movie. It stars...

HOLMES: Yeah, it is.

HARRIS: (Laughter) It's so weird. It stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who was also in "Bridesmaids," and they both co-wrote it as well. And it's directed by Josh Greenbaum. Kristen Wiig plays Star, and Mumolo plays Barb. And they are two Midwestern women who decide to take a vacation to Vista del Mar, a resort in Florida. I don't want to give too much away because it's just one of those movies that the less you know about it, the better it is because it's just weird. But suffice it to say that there's a lot of running running gags, a lot of sight gags and a lot of jokes. They, at one point, do an entire banter back and forth imagining a woman named Trish and what her life is like. Yeah, it's weird - "Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar." Go for it. Go there. Go to there.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: It is weird. It is weird. I agree with you. It is weird and funny. And Glen has been nodding as well.

WELDON: Mmm hmm.

HOLMES: All right. What is making me happy this week is - you know, you don't need - if you are a Netflix viewer and a person who watches baking shows, you don't need me to tell you how delightful Nadiya is, who was a contestant on "The Great British Bake Off"/"The Great British Baking Show," depending on where you watch it. She has always been one of my favorite contestants. She just has an enormous amount of charm and kind of self-deprecating sense of humor, just absolutely, absolutely delightful to watch. She's done a little bit of hosting of other things as she - as her star has risen. She now has a show that is available on Netflix called "Nadiya Bakes." And it's very much like watching, you know, like, Ina Garten or somebody like that, who just kind of talks you through - in a very kind of luscious-looking show, talks you through different, in this case, baking projects. What is wonderful about it is she is still herself. And yet she also, I think, has really developed her hosting skills and her kind of presentation skills. It is a really, really pleasant, relaxing, lovely watch. I definitely recommend it. It's called Nadiya Bakes. And there are, I believe, eight episodes available on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended plus some more recommendations that are exclusive to our newsletter, subscribe to that over at npr.prg/popculturenewsletter. One last thing before we go - we are going to be talking about the show "King Of The Hill," and we want your questions. You can send a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, send us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org.

That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me @LindaHolmes. You can find Stephen @IDislikeStephen. You can find Glen @GHWeldon, and you can find Aisha @CraftingMyStyle. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy @Jessica_Reedy, our producer Candice Lim @TheCandiceLim and our producer Mallory Yu @Mallory_Yu. You can find our producer Mike Katzif @MikeKatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello, Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. So thanks to all of you for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

HOLMES: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week when we will be talking about the HBO Max series "It's A Sin."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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