Nomadland (2020)

I’ve been doing a week rounding up some of my year’s favourite films that I haven’t yet posted on here, and I know it’s already the new year, but here’s one I saw just this past week that I forgot to post, so I’m doing it now, ahead of my full list of favourites.

By this point director/writer (and editor) Chloé Zhao has built up a pretty solid body of work dealing with the dispossessed in American society. Her previous two features (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) have been sensitive stories of First Nations people, and while this one focuses far more on Frances McDormand, it has the same interest in marginal lives eked out in the kinds of spaces not often seen on the American screen, as she bounces between itinerant work in Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada and other such places with vast horizons and empty space aplenty.

Everyone in the film goes by their own name, even our star (as seen on an ID card she uses in an early shot, though her character uses the nickname Fern), which suggests a strong documentary quality to this tale, and I would believe that everyone we see lives these very lives. There are sad stories and plenty of tears, but these aren’t placed within a framework of anger or misery (though it could easily be spun that way, given that most of the lives we see are largely due to inadequate social welfare protections, and even working for an Amazon warehouse is fairly soft-pedalled given a lot of the journalism that has been built up around that). Instead the film grounds itself in a shared feeling of hope that everyone forges together in these RV parks and desert encampments, that could look like cults but are just communities of like-minded people looking out for themselves. This could easily be the dystopian apocalyptic world of other films, but it’s a disarmingly generous and empathetic take on what such communities might feel like, set amongst people who have embraced their choices and have become determined to find something positive in what others might see as a massive failure of government and society. These lifestyles are hardly going away, but it’s heartening somehow to see people trying to make them work.

Nomadland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷 (based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder); Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 26 December 2020.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, with no introduction or Q&A.

It strikes me that I’ve been a bit withering about filmmakers taking inspiration from Terrence Malick over the years as indicative of some kind of creative rut, but there are ways to do it well (generally, ditch the poetic voiceover), and it seems to me that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is both its own film and also channels the best of Malick — which is to say the gorgeous cinematography which presents characters in a close relationship to a spectacular natural world. The drama itself focuses on the residents of a Native American reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol is banned but problems still persist. Most of the characters have the same names as the actors, suggesting perhaps that a lot of them are not indeed trained as such, and so there’s a natural edge to John Reddy’s laconic performance as lead character Johnny Winters (some of the best films about teenagers are at their strongest when their characters say less rather than more). His father has just died, and in coming together for the funeral you get the sense of the many connections within the reservation, as it turns out Johnny and his little sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) are only two of 25 or so siblings from multiple different mothers. Johnny is caught up in a bit of illicit alcohol trafficking, and smokes plenty of pot, but really he’s just a normal kid trying to make the best of bleak opportunities. The narrative proceeds in fragments and ellipses, as Johnny decides to leave for the West Coast to join his girlfriend, but the drama is largely in creating a thumbnail portrait of the reservation, from the prison where his brother lives, to his mother’s hard-fought struggle for family stability, to the ex-cons trying to make a living selling by the roadside (with whom Jashaun strikes up an unlikely but sweet friendship), to the school where in one memorable scene students struggle to imagine their futures while petting a variety of dangerous-looking animals. However you respond to the film’s slow-building atmosphere, there’s a lot to like in this.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷; Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring John Reddy, JaShaun St. John; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.