The life we love is in the desert with our friends,
and we can't wait to be meet our friends again.
Rebeca Ibarra: You're listening to The Takeaway. I am Rebeca Ibarra in for Tanzina. This past weekend, the movie Nomadland won the Golden Globe for best drama and best director cementing its status as an Oscar's front runner. The film, which is currently streaming on Hulu, was directed by Chloé Zhao and stars, Frances McDormand as a woman named Fern who lives out of her van and from paycheck to paycheck. Other than McDorman, many of the people featured in the film are playing versions of themselves and actually live lifestyles similar to Ferns. Here's McDorman in a scene from the film speaking with an employment agent.
Agent: When do you need to get back to work?
Agent: It is a tough time right now. You may want to consider registering for early retirement.
Fern: I don't think I can get by on the benefits and I need work. I like work.
Agent: I'm not sure exactly what you would be eligible for.
Rebeca Ibarra: The film has picked up a considerable amount of praise but it's also been met by a degree of backlash since its release, especially for scenes filmed inside an actual Amazon warehouse. Some of its critics argue that the film goes too easy on the harsh reality of labor practices at Amazon.
Going places we may never go again,
and we can't wait to meet our friends again.
Rebeca Ibarra: With me now to discuss is Alison Willmore film critic at Vulture and New York Magazine. Alison, thanks for being here.
Alison Willmore: Oh, it's a pleasure.
Rebeca Ibarra: You first saw Nomadland in the Fall. What was your initial impression of the movie?
Alison Willmore: Well, Chloé Zhao is someone whose career I've been following over the course of the decade or so that she's been at it. She's someone who I've always thought was a really interesting filmmaker who does a lot of work with people who are not professional actors. I think it's a really moving film. I think it really captures this complicated intersection between this idea of the old American West and this independent streak in some of these characters and then also this real failure in terms of the safety net and what it's left these characters having to do.
Rebeca Ibarra: For people who haven't seen the film, how would you describe the character of Fern?
Alison Willmore: Well, Fern is one of the few fictional characters, like fully fictional characters in the film and she is a widow who lived in a company town that just basically evaporated after the mine that was there was closed down. She has lost both, her husband and her community in a short time and spends the film learning about this community of people on the road who are simultaneously supporting each other but also all living independent lives in their vans and vehicles and going to different places for seasonal work.
Rebeca Ibarra: She actually does spend so much time listening, right?
Alison Willmore: Yes. She is a tour guide in a way to this real world and she spends a lot of time speaking to people who are really part of this lifestyle and who have come to it for different reasons, whether it's economic necessity and desperation or whether it's a desire to strip down and get away from the workweek. I think it's through her that we get a look at this spectrum of experiences within the nomad community.
Rebeca Ibarra: We mentioned that parts of Nomadland were filmed inside an Amazon warehouse and last week, Wilfred Chan wrote for Vulture, actually that the film actually downplays the real stakes of this kind of labor. Where do you think the criticism of those scenes is coming from?
Alison Willmore: Well, I think that whenever you're going to see Amazon on-screen and particularly inside an Amazon warehouse, which is not something that oftentimes camera's are invited into, unless it's through a very controlled public relations experience, Amazon has notorious and increasingly notorious labor issues. I think to see an Amazon warehouse on screen and not have it framed very explicitly as a critique of Amazon, which I don't think Nomadland does necessarily. I think that for a lot of people who have critiqued the film for that, that is a failure, that it does not make more explicit the issues with Amazon and what Amazon is essentially taking advantage of in its gig economy workers.
Rebeca Ibarra: You recently interviewed the film's director, Chloé Zhao. What was her response to the criticism of the Amazon scenes?
Alison Willmore: Chloé's viewpoint was very interesting to me, which is that for her, Amazon is just one of the components essentially taking advantage of this greater structural failure. She said that this is a film about the grander issues of eldercare and also about the lack of economic stability and support for a lot of these characters who as the real people are in their 60s and sometimes 70s at an age when you would, usually, at least used to be able to think about retiring and are instead working still and doing like oftentimes very taxing physical labor in order to support themselves. For Chloé, and I think that this is a valid point, she sees Amazon as one of the components of that, but also, she wanted to point out that when they have to shovel beets in Nebraska in November, that is also grueling work and that cleaning toilets on a campground, these are all part of what she sees as a larger structural critique.
Rebeca Ibarra: She actually told you that the film's politics might be obscured by the fact that it also features these really beautiful images of the Western United States. What do you think about that?
Alison Willmore: I think that there is an eternal struggle for us, and I think it is unresolvable and entirely personal as to whether you need the aesthetics of a film to mirror the message, or in some cases, the misery that the characters are experiencing. I think that they can co-exist, that you can have someone working in an Amazon warehouse and going outside to see the beautiful sunset outside as she put it. I don't think that romanticizes the larger issues at work, but I also understand why some people see it as an aesthetic that maybe glosses over the themes. I think they're capable of coexisting and you can be in an extraordinarily beautiful place and also be living a really difficult life.
Rebeca Ibarra: Lastly, in the 30 seconds we have left, do you think the film manages to use the non-professional actors without exploiting them in a way?
Alison Willmore: I think it feels very collaborative and I spoke to some of them, including Bob Wells, who is the spokesperson of the Nomad Movement on YouTube. He shares this incredibly personal story in the film, and he said that for him, it felt like it was a healing moment to be able to share his pain, but also as he put it to gift it to the movie and to the world.
Rebeca Ibarra: Alison Willmore, Hillbilly Elegy is another movie from the past year that depicts people living in poverty. How would you compare the film's portrayal of its characters to a Nomadland's?
Alison Willmore: It's interesting, Nomadland and Hillbilly Elegy are essentially both portrayals of white American poverty. Hillbilly Elegy was explicitly sold as that and also as in some ways, in terms of the JD Vance book, the explanation for Trump, and the surge of what particularly happened to the right-wing over the last few years. I think that what you see in the difference is that I would say Hillbilly Elegy attempts to kind of diagnose its characters or use its characters to diagnose a kind of aspect of America that I think ultimately it was not successful in that.
Nomadland is about characters who are affected by different economic forces but are ultimately not symbols of it, they are still fully fleshed-out individuals. I think that that's the huge difference. I think also, obviously, and this is a long-time Oscar movie problem, Hillbilly Elegy is a bunch of well-known actors transforming themselves to look like people living working-class lives in Ohio. In Nomadland, you have a bit of that with Frances McDormand, but you also have actual people living these lives.
Rebeca Ibarra: Is the fact that Hillbilly Elegy has received a more muted response than Nomadland a sign that viewers are maybe getting tired of some of Hollywood's poverty tropes?
Alison Willmore: I would like to believe so especially around this time of year. I think that there's a particular type of awards hopeful, let's say, that can feel very uncomfortably like tourism, in particular, I think in the case of Hillbilly Elegy, it can feel like tourism in this particular type of economic distress and portrayals of abuse and addiction. I think that tension is always been there when you have movie stars who obviously don't come directly from these lives playing them, you can have that tension. I do think recently that there's been a bit of pushback on that, or at least a desire for greater authenticity.
Rebeca Ibarra: Are there other recent movies that you think have done a good job at capturing the lives of characters, living paycheck to paycheck?
Alison Willmore: One that comes to mind for me is actually just through coincidence another film that used a lot of first-time performers, not necessarily all ones from the world it depicted, but I thought the Florida project, which is Sean Baker's film that was set at a week to week motel outside of Disney world, where a lot of people who were just unable to basically have the resources to get an apartment live in this final spot for a lot of people before homelessness. I think that it was very frank about its depictions of just being in this economically desperate situation. While at the same time, really lacking the potential for condescension that can sometimes come with a big Hollywood movie tackling themes like that. It really felt like it was immersed in the community that it sought to depict.
Rebeca Ibarra: Alison Willmore is a film critic at a Vulture and New York magazine. Alison Willmore, thanks so much.
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