Drifting Away, A New Spirit of Acquiescence
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao 2020) & Once Upon a River (Haroula Rose 2019)
As the dust settles on the accolades bestowed to Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand for Nomadland, I am curious to consider how the movie questions if independence is possible in societies systemically inflected by perfectionism. To assess this dilemma, I will introduce another movie, one that drifts into adjacent problematic and precarious dwelling places in other US states, with a different relation to the well-calibrated comforts of wealth, welfare, privilege, agency, and security.
As for Nomadland, in Haroula Rose’s Once Upon a River, a single breath-taking performance holds the focus. Hawaiian, Kenadi DelaCerna as Margo, plays a self-sufficient indigenous American, a rifle wheedling teenager whose life gets complicated. Both narratives stake claims to seek the soul of America in the mould of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. To that end, they seek authenticity using verité styles with the slight wobble of a hand-held camera. The stories are passages in redemptive journeys, punctuated by emblematic characters met along the way. The river motif in Rose’s film is explicit, a compromised primeval route in a landscape where the magnificence of wilderness abuts ill-favoured civilization, the latter washed in anodyne colour.
Nomadland’s central character, Fern (McDormand), is a rogue professional actor among the cast of real people. Most are itinerates, participants in a mobile-home community, among them marginal celebrities such as CheapRVliving YouTube Channel nomad evangelist Bob Wells and country singer Cat Clifford. Zhao draws unaffected performances from these vagabonds, some choosing this lifestyle, many, like Fern, overstretched real-estate casualties. Their van-based lives tend to be solitary, striking up passing friendships in dusty roadside encampments. The vagrant life demands moving on, sometimes drifting with seasonal employment. Fern’s sister likens them to Pioneers, but they are not heading anywhere but looping back on themselves.
Margo’s immature equivocation compares to Fern’s stoicism and the heroic romanticism inherent in Zhao’s meandering storyline. In comparison to Nomadland’s subtle technical maturity, Once Upon a River has a film-school awkwardness. Its plot crowded with sex, trauma, mortality, an apple of temptation, a psychedelic mushroom trip, and an icky voiceover — it’s Michigan 1977, ‘daddy and I were doing our best to get by… I had just turned 15, and I missed mom all the time.’ However, the movie isn’t maudlin; its force lies in Margo’s emotional torpor. Fern’s brio, expressed in pensive appreciation of her natural surroundings, contrasts with Margo’s liminality. And, of course, Margo’s indigenous status makes her a genuine outsider in an invasive civilization; Fern’s nomadic lifestyle is integral to the colonial mindset.
The movie has only just gotten going, and directly Margo’s successful uncle starts to notice her rifle skills and sexual inexperience. His grooming is as perfunctory as the rape. Margo rejects law enforcement in favour of a bullet. Her plan to aim for his groin goes badly wrong. A defensive shot from one of her leering hillbilly cousins accidentally kills her dad and sends her on a quest to locate her estranged mother. Later, this uncomfortable meeting parallels the awkwardness of Fern’s encounters in settled suburban habitats where accumulated grime doesn’t all wash off in a shower. Restlessness accrues from experience on the move, and the desire for self-determination becomes ingrained. In Fern’s life, as for her nomadic friends, the stable home is a myth. You need to get away from it, as far away as possible.
The River scenario is less polarized. Margo’s motivation is unresolved, and her emotional responses are open-ended. She is pregnant. The abortion clinic is as dispassionate as her mom’s detachment, sympathy sublimated as organizational efficiency. Margo can see that neither, person nor institution, gives a fuck; they just want everything tidy. Their realities are far more perverse than her worst options. It’s where Fern and Margo’s experiences diverge. In the movie, Fern has an admirer, fellow actor, and interloper, David Strathairn. Both of them have a cushion, beyond the fact that they are simply playing parts. When David feels vulnerable, he can move back to a cosey family. He hopes Fern will consider joining him. It’s a device Zhou uses to highlight Fern’s heroic tenacity.
Margo’s situation is more precarious. On her journey, she briefly hooks up with a compatriot, a Cherokee from Oklahoma. He tells her, ‘the people who came to this country and took over, they never intended for us to survive,’ in this land everything’s poisoned. His words are portentous: his grooming is slightly more elaborated, but like the uncle, he objectively prays on Margo’s lack of sophistication. After the gently coercive rape, he’s on the road, leaving a note telling her to go back to school.
There is a further vitally important encounter in Margo’s story, a place where she can rest. She arrives at a backwoods settlement, a choked-up iteration of Nomdland’s mobile caravan. Deserted but for Smoke, not so old but whose emphysema is symbolic of his inability to adapt to the toxic world around. An agreeable and equable connection forms between them, both aware that the implied freedom of wilderness and the ancient river is forced into contortions by systems beyond the sway of those waiting to give birth or to die. The places they live and pass through are not wild but deformed by surrounding institutional regulations and controls. The effect suggested by Nomadland is contrary, promising free poetic choices, even for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Once Upon a River doesn’t shy away from practicalities, Smoke’s nieces nag him to conform as an invalid, Margo’s mum desires her to comply to the status of teen pregnancy, a deficiency you want to be rid of. Eventually, Margo accepts hospital support for her birth. Smoke’s last choice is to reject institutional palliative care, choosing death by water, expressing his’ right to live and die the way you want.’
Margo’s capitulation is partial, reverting to the literary model of Oriana Fallaci with a handwritten epistle to her unborn child, framing the river not as an element in a natural landscape but integral to her legitimacy. In an early interview, Zhao said a ‘lot of info I received when I was younger was not true.’ In her movie, Fern’s optimism and the nomads’ undespairing resilience elides the economic forces that have determined their fate. They are too old, and it is too late. For Nomadland, the dyad of ownership and authorship, the movie’s future value, conferred by admittance to the awards’ pantheon, and Zhao’s new lauded status, foreclose the possibilities still open to Rose and the characters of Once Upon a River, imperfect authors of flawed lives.
The words of a Cat Clifford song snatched in the haze at sunset during the movie and resounding over Nomadland’s end credits, express hollow, romantic promises. ‘It’s been many years since I started out for that gold. Findin’ bits and pieces, all worth their reach.’ It is a mature ballad of fine-tuned deceit.