Tag Archives: Nomadland

A Beautiful Walking Sim of a Film — “Nomadland”

“Nomadland” won’t be for everybody. For the people who enjoy films that act like witnesses, it can be beautiful. What do I mean by that?

“Nomadland” follows Fern, a woman in her 60s. Her husband has died. She’s lost her home and job in the Great Recession. She lives in her van, driving from place to place and job to job. She’s played by Frances McDormand in a cast that blends actors with real people who live this modern nomadic life.

It reflects on the collapse of empire we’re all living through, but only in a way that helps characters speak to other characters. Fern struggles, but her journey is never treated as a tragic or representative story. Instead, it’s simply her story, emotionally full, bittersweet at times, and eventful in the way anyone’s can be.

Let’s get back to the question. How does a movie act like a witness, or an observer? There are films that simply seem to watch what happens. What’s cinematic feels removed from them. That’s hard to accomplish when a film still includes everything that makes a movie: edits, dialogue shots, landscape, sets, music, acting, you name it. That’s all still there, but it fades as you watch until you’re just a witness along with it.

Go with me on a tangent here; it’ll wrap back around. Warren Spector is a video game designer. He once spoke about his dream game: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly”.

The idea is to replicate one city block in all its details, foibles, in all its random objects that may mean nothing or that may collect into describing a person. People would go about their lives with no particular heed to the player as special or unique or as anything else but another person going about their life.

Critic Jim Rossignol once compared this to a game called “Gone Home”. It simulates as deeply as possible returning to a family home. Games like this are associated with a genre called walking simulators. They can become controversial because they pursue a meticulous realization of a place instead of prioritizing gameplay. Being able to inhabit that place as a player is what’s important, even if everything that usually makes a game feels removed. Many argue that this makes the genre cease to be games, and start to be a different kind of interactive art.

The agency that we enjoy in most video games is instead centered around a place feeling, looking, and acting real. For the audience, you can invest in the feeling that it is real. What traditionally makes a game a game – running, jumping, dodging, shooting, solving puzzles – in these games those elements fade away. You’re just a witness there. You’re just moving through the house, seeing what’s there, rifling through closets and dressers and drawing conclusions that ultimately only matter to you. In many of these games, like “Firewatch”, “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”, or “Dear Esther”, there is a clear end-state for the player’s journey. In the most experimental forms of walking sim, such as those made by Connor Sherlock and Kitty Horrorshow, there’s often no win-state or conclusion. You just keep witnessing until you decide to stop playing.

This is what “Nomadland” is, and why it’s beautiful. What makes a film a film is deeply secondary to watching someone live. Whereas games are built around the agency of its audience, films are most often built around performance. So instead of gameplay being replaced by a location to explore, what’s cinematic is replaced by a life to learn.

In “Nomadland” there is no end-state or conclusion. There’s no wrap-up. Of course the film ends at some point, but what plot happens is secondary to feeling like you’re experiencing who Fern is. That doesn’t really conclude. As an audience, we move through, seeing what’s there, inhabiting these moments and places. We make inferences about these lives, and it all ultimately only matters to you.

It may seem strange to compare a film to a walking sim, but the internal space they both evoke is similar. There are things that move you, but again and again I found myself returning to thoughts about my own life and decisions. I’m three decades younger than Frances McDormand, but even in my 30s I have photos I enjoy remembering, a toy from my childhood I miss, loved ones who have passed, keepsakes, memories. I may be younger, but we all have our starter’s kits for nostalgia. “Nomadland” provides a uniquely safe space to think about those things, to evoke their memory in myself. And as sad as parts of the film may be, they never feel heartbreaking or aching. The sadness is simply there, alongside everything else.

Movies are very different from video games, but “Nomadland” accomplishes in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a character what walking sims often accomplish in the patient, seemingly undirected exploration of a space. Of course, both have to be directed near perfectly to obscure that sense of direction, but “Nomadland” is more similar to that experience than it is to most other films.

Obviously, cinema has a longer history as a medium – it’s more accepting of films like this. Yet the closest comparisons I might draw to it are still more consciously cinematic:

I think of the films of Byambasuren Davaa, Terrence Malick, Bela Tarr. These are movies that often rely on long takes. You inhabit their spaces through unbroken contact. It’s easier to feel like you inhabit a place alongside characters when edits are few and far between. It’s one way of removing something cinematic from the equation so that you feel more like a witness than a viewer.

For the most part, “Nomadland” edits quickly. This put me off at first. It’s much more difficult to feel close to characters, alongside them in that place, if we’re constantly changing shot and even locations. There’s something here that’s lyrical, though – sometimes visually, but that’s not what I mean. What’s remarkable about “Nomadland” is that it gets to a similar place without removing any of the obvious hallmarks of movie-ness.

In Davaa, Malick, and Tarr’s films, I can feel like I’m seated among the characters. I’m witnessing what’s happening as an unspoken character, as the proverbial fly on the wall. The magic of those films is that I become the camera, a kind of ghost observer who exists in the scene. It feels like I am in those rooms and landscapes, watching what’s happening.

In “Nomadland”, it feels like there is no camera. It’s much more akin to the feeling of watching a documentary, but without narration, questions, themed structure, or any of what typically forms a documentary. You don’t feel like you’re a fly on the wall in a place, you feel like a fly on the wall in a life. It doesn’t feel like you’ve become the camera here, it feels like you’ve become a memory seeing all the other memories alongside you. It feels like you’re one of the people Fern passingly meets, who shares some moment that they’ll both look back on as happy, or fraught, or interesting, but a moment you’ll remember.

It might not even be a special moment, but it becomes special because you remember it, because one day you’ll look back on it as a hallmark of that time, as an anchor point to feel what you did then, as a space with someone else that felt sheltered when so much else didn’t.

There are so many beautiful, meaningful films I want to one day re-watch and re-experience. I can sometimes know that a movie is one I’ll go back to again and again the moment the credits roll.

The highest compliment I can pay to “Nomadland” is that I might not ever revisit it – because it feels so completely a memory that I’d like to recall just as I recall memories – incomplete, fragmented, as much sensation as information, fading but still held onto.

It is a moment of witnessing before the moment’s gone again.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Nomadland” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Frances McDormand plays Fern. Melissa Smith plays Dolly. Linda May and Swankie play versions of themselves. A number of other women have one-scene speaking parts. Usually, I’d list these characters and their actors, but because so many are playing versions of themselves, names are often only mentioned once, and most aren’t professional actors with headshots or promo stills, it’s difficult to line up who was who in each scene.

Suffice to say that these are the major parts for women, but that many other feature and this is an incomplete list.

“Nomadland” is also written and directed by Chloe Zhao (as well as produced and edited by her). It’s based on a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder.

2. Do they talk to each other?


3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Occasionally they discuss men – Fern clearly holds trauma because of the loss of her husband and her own father, and a fellow vandweller named Dave is a friend who’s interested in her.

More often, however, they discuss how to change a tire, job openings, where they’re traveling to next. They tell their stories to each other, repeat their favorite memories, share crafts, take care of each other, describe how their vans got their names.

You can watch “Nomadland” on Hulu with a subscription.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — February 19, 2021

I’ve been able to learn and expand the scope of this feature in the first year of doing it. You might notice I’m covering a few additional services recently like MUBI, Sundance Now, and Kanopy.

However we refer to these services, get familiar with how they work. Take Kanopy, for instance. Do you have a library card or a log-in with a university? Then you probably already have Kanopy at no charge. This is because Kanopy is paid for by participating college and library systems. It provides people access to a huge library of films, with the cost already covered.

MUBI is also unique. If you see something on it that you like, you only have 30 days to watch it from its premiere on the service. MUBI is a constantly rotating curation of 30 movies. That may seem strange, but it gives the service the ability to license less-seen films, while maintaining those movies’ exclusivity to later strike a deal with a larger service.

Many services both major and niche offer free trial periods, so if you really want to see a film or series and you don’t have the service, consider just running it for a trial period. Or wait until a few things stack up on it, subscribe for a month, binge them all, and then cancel when next month rolls around.

There’s nothing wrong with that; there are services I keep constant access to and others I rotate through as needed.

When something is both on a service and still rentable individually, I also include a link to a list of where you can rent it. Keep an eye out for that – paying $3 or $4 for a digital rental is a lot less expensive than getting a service for a month just to see it.

If you don’t have to worry about these things, that is great – take a look at smaller streaming services featuring lesser-seen films and consider supporting them. (Or take a look at a certain writer’s Patreon, which helps me research and write this weekly feature and other articles.)

OK, ramble more than fully rambled, let’s get to this week’s new shows and movies by women:


The Luminaries (Starz)
showrunner Eleanor Catton

“The Luminaries” is set during New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush. In the novel by Eleanor Catton, a man travels to the South Island in order to strike it rich. Instead, he happens upon a meeting of others trying to discern a series of murders, thefts, and disappearances that involves them all.

The series is based on Catton’s novel, and she serves as showrunner and writer here. Claire McCarthy directs the entire series. McCarthy is known for Daisy Ridley-starrer “Ophelia”, a retelling of “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s perspective.

“The Luminaries” ran in New Zealand and the UK last year, and this is the first time it’s available in the U.S.

You can watch “The Luminaries” with a subscription to Starz, with new episodes of the 6-part series premiering every Sunday.

Young Rock (NBC)
showrunner Nahnatchka Khan

I’m going to be honest. I’m wary of the premise (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson looks back on his life as he runs for president in 2032; I think we’ve had enough celebrity presidents). While I like Johnson just fine, I’m not sure I was raring at the chance to see a show depicting him growing up. But then I looked up the name of the showrunner.

Nahnatchka Khan is an all-too-hidden legend in comedy television. She wrote some of the best episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle”. She’d follow this up by creating and showrunning two of the best sitcoms of the 2010s: “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” and “Fresh Off the Boat”.

I realize Dwayne Johnson is the name selling the series, but it’s Khan’s that takes it from something I would have let pass by to something I know I need to check out. Her involvement doesn’t guarantee a show will be special (she produced and wrote on “American Dad”, for instance), but it does give it a very good chance.

You can watch “Young Rock” on NBC, with new episodes premiering every Tuesday.

Tell Me Your Secrets (Amazon)
co-showrunner Harriet Warner

Emma covered up for her lover’s crimes – they just happened to be serial murder. When she’s finally released from prison on a deal to provide evidence, she’s put into witness protection in New Orleans. A grieving mother who believes Emma was involved in her daughter’s death decides to blackmail a man into tracking Emma down.

“Tell Me Your Secrets” is created by co-showrunner Harriet Warner. She’s previously written on “Call the Midwife” and consulted on “The Alienist: Angel of Darkness”.

You can watch “Tell Me Your Secrets” on Amazon with a subscription.


Nomadland (Hulu)
directed by Chloe Zhao

A woman loses her life and savings in the Great Recession. She lives out of her van, as a nomad looking for work where it comes. The film is based on the novel by Jessica Bruder.

This is getting a lot of award buzz and earned a mountain of Golden Globes nominations. Chloe Zhao’s nomination there as Best Director is the first for any Asian woman.

Award timing gets a little confusing in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic – “Nomadland” did a one week run at a single theater in December to qualify as a 2020 film for awards purposes. It technically comes out today, Feb. 19, 2021. Thus, the awards shows consider it a 2020 movie, while it’s coming out two months into 2021 for the rest of us. I’m just glad it’s getting attention.

Zhao both writes and directs, as she did on “The Rider” and “Songs My Brother Taught Me”. She’s also in post-production on a Marvel film, “Eternals”.

You can watch “Nomadland” on Hulu with a subscription.

Dead Pigs (MUBI)
directed by Cathy Yan

There’s an unlucky pig farmer trying to make ends meet. A woman is being threatened so that she’ll sell her home. There’s also the naive restaurant worker, a bored rich girl, and an American con-man. Every one of their paths brushes against the other in the absurdist satire by Cathy Yan. “Dead Pigs” revolves around a real event: when 16,000 dead pigs floated down China’s Huangpu River in 2013.

Cathy Yan directed one of last year’s most underrated films, “Birds of Prey”. Her “Dead Pigs” came out in 2018 in China, but this is the very first time it’s available in the U.S.

You can watch “Dead Pigs” on MUBI with a subscription.

Song Without a Name (MUBI)
directed by Melina Leon

CW: child abduction

Georgina goes to a health clinic to give birth. It promises free service. The problem is it’s fake – the moment she gives birth to her daughter, the baby is taken away. There’s no explanation for it; her daughter has simply been kidnapped. In her search for help, a journalist is the only one willing to aid her.

The Peruvian film is told in Quechua and Spanish. If you’re not watching Peruvian film, you’re missing one of the most interesting spaces confronting the long-lasting impacts and modern mutations of colonialism. This is the first feature film from Melina Leon.

You can watch “Song Without a Name” on MUBI with a subscription.

The Third Wife (multiple)
directed by Ash Mayfair

CW: child marriage, sexual assault

This Vietnamese film centers on a 14 year-old girl who is to become the third wife to a landowner. Set in the 19th century, it follows her experiences as she is married off and pressured to have a son.

This is writer-director Ash Mayfair’s first feature film. She’s worked variously as writer, director, producer, and as sound mixer in a range of short films.

“The Third Wife” technically had a U.S. theatrical release in 2019 – in all of 8 theaters. That’s not really accessible to U.S. viewers, and this is the first time it’s reached one of the semi-major subscription streamers.

You can watch “The Third Wife” on Sundance Now, Kanopy, or Hoopla. Kanopy is a service paid for by libraries and universities. It should work with most public library cards or college log-ins. Alternately, see where to rent “The Third Wife”.

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (multiple)
directed by Anca Damian

This French and Romanian animated film finds a dog remembering their life after an accident. They recount all their different masters, and the events that brought them together and took them apart.

Anca Damian is a Romanian director who’s helmed both animated and live-action films, as well as narrative and documentary films.

This came out briefly for a virtual theatrical release last June, and this is the first time it’s arriving on a subscription streaming service.

You can watch “Marona’s Fantastic Tale” on Starz or Hoopla with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

Flora & Ulysses (Disney+)
directed by Lena Khan

A girl and her superpowered squirrel take off on adventures. The film is based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. She also wrote the book on which “The Tale of Despereaux” is based.

Director Lena Khan has created a wide-ranged resume in a short period of time. She followed 2016 period comedy “The Tiger Hunter” with “Schools of Torture”, directing re-enactments that shone a light on the methods of torture certain governments utilize. (Rest assured that “Flora & Ulysses” is listed as a family comedy.)

You can watch “Flora & Ulysses” on Disney+ with a subscription.

Namaste Wahala (Netflix)
directed by Hamisha Daryani Ahuja

This is the story of a Nigerian woman and an Indian man. They navigate a range of cultural differences and outside judgment in pursuing their relationship.

Hamisha Daryani Ahuja directs. She grew up in an Indian home in Nigeria, so aspects of the story reflect her own experiences. This is her first feature film.

You can watch “Namaste Wahala” on Netflix with a subscription.

Shook (Shudder)
directed by Jennifer Harrington

CW: potential epilepsy trigger, implied violence to an animal

An influencer is targeted online. She’ll have to solve riddles and play her stalker’s game in order to save the ones she loves.

Jennifer Harrington chiefly works as an editor and this is her second feature after indie horror “Housekeeping”.

You can watch “Shook” on Shudder with a subscription.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.