[Published as part of New Pollution #2]

The irritatingly genteel Nomadland, adapted from a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, appears well on its way to golden statuettes and other year-end plaudits. For writer-director-editor Chloé Zhao this is the last stop before the Marvel Moloch grinds her personal stamp, such as it is, to a pre-viz’d pulp with The Eternals. I didn’t much care for the mannered neo-realism of The Rider, but at least it could fall back on the authenticity of the people and places it portrayed. First shot of Nomadland: Frances McDormand opening up a storage locker in the wintry middle-American nowhere, capital-A Acting as her van-living vagabond character, Fern, wistfully goes through the ephemera of a life upended by hardship. The falsest of notes to start on, and it doesn’t much improve from there.

I was near-totally against the movie when McDormand was shown packing boxes at an actual Amazon distribution center, images that brought to mind some fire my better half lobbed at the sight of Meryl Streep slogging away behind a grocery checkout counter in Ricki and the Flash: “It’s like Princess Grace working at Whole Foods.” Then I was lulled for a bit by all the shallow, heart-plucking mythopoeticism — long drives through open country and even longer stares at “real” people, most of them nonprofessionals riffing on their own socioeconomic difficulties. That is until I recognized the mild approach (complete with a cloying score by Ludovico Einaudi that’s like skim-milk Gustavo Santaolalla) as willfully, obstinately apolitical.

Zhao’s film takes place over 2012-2013, in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. But it might as well be in an alternate universe where no one speaks above a whisper and “America” remains a vaguely benign abstraction, its myriad inequities mitigated by one woman’s superheroic pluck and gumption. Easy to do when you’re a celebrity playing diarrhea-in-a-bucket dress-down. Nomadland is the worst sort of well-meaning grotesquerie.

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