OPINION — It’s officially the Best Picture. What does “Nomadland” say about South Dakota, about America, about us?
The somber, quietly devastating film tells a sad story — an aging woman cast adrift, with only her van as a home — in a beautiful way.
That makes it fitting that much of the Academy Award-winning film was set and shot in South Dakota. We are a beautiful state but there are so many silent tragedies here as well. Thousands of our neighbors, mostly children or the elderly, are poor, hungry, without health care or hope.
“Nomadland” tells their story expertly, of the people who struggle to survive in our land of plenty, who peddle doughnuts to tourists and clean restrooms while trying to scrape together a living.
South Dakota has embraced the film, in a quiet way. The South Dakota Department of Tourism has celebrated the scenes shot at Wall Drug — free ice water, and elderly servers eking out a living — and The Badlands.
But our elected leaders have been very quiet. Gov. Kristi “Call me when you’re an American” Noem is unlikely to champion a film created by someone named Chloé Zhao.
Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson, foot soldiers in the economy that has forced these Americans into cramped lives on the road, will likely be silent as well. They long for the lies and myths spun by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, of big, strong white men with guns.
That’s their West, not frightened old people warming soup on a hot plate in the back of a dented van. Days after “Nomadland” dominated the Academy Awards, South Dakota political leaders have been silent about it. It’s not their kind of movie.
Zhao, who won the Oscar for Best Director, has shown a special appreciation for our state. Born in Beijing, she attended school in England, Los Angeles and Massachusetts, but her first three films were set, all or in part, in South Dakota.
Her debut, “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” released in 2015, is the story of a Lakota teen and his kid sister trying to scrape by on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after their father’s death.
“The Rider,” released to widespread critical acclaim in 2017, again focuses on the life of a Lakota family, with rodeo a central part of the story.
The American West, and the miserable, the misfits and the miscreants who live in it, are her subjects.
“I’ve always been an outsider,” she has said. “I’m drawn to outsiders.”
The central character in “Nomadland” is a 61-year-old white woman who, as the movie opens, has lost her husband, her job and her home. How will she survive, both emotionally and financially?
It’s based on the real lives of people in similar straits, forced to survive in vans, mobile homes or cars. They roam the West, looking for work, a place to park and, just maybe, a chance to connect with other people.
The film, which has been a modest success at the box office because of its subject as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” Bruder, a journalist and teacher, spent three years researching the lonely, frightening and vulnerable lives of the people America has tossed to the wind.
Bruder said the nomads fear “The Knock,” a jolting experience when someone, often a cop, tells them it’s time to move on, even if they have nowhere to go.
“If you’ve seen the movie, remember how the knock made Fern cringe, her voice tightening with anxiety and exhaustion as she shouted, ‘I’m leaving!’ she wrote for The New York Times.
“Then envision a kinder scene, in which people can eat or sleep in peace — even if their homes are on wheels.”
Some real nomads were cast in the film. It’s their lives, their stories, their reality. Look around you — they are here. They bag your groceries, serve you burgers and fries, sweep up at the mall.
This is how we treat our elders, the ones without rich farmland left to them by their fathers, without pensions and retirement accounts. They strive to live another day, as we avert our gaze.
Frances McDormand, a brilliant chameleon who disappears into her roles, now has won three Oscars. In her acceptance speech, the proudly unglamorous McDormand quoted Macduff battling MacBeth.
“I have no words: my voice is in my sword,” McDormand said.
“Nomadland” cuts deeply, exposing the wounds millions feel. It’s more than an award-winning movie.
It’s an honest look at our nation today, where we allow these brave nomads to roam and await The Knock that will send them back on the road.
It’s not a happy film, nor one that will give a warm feeling. It should, however, leave you with restless thoughts that will roam through your mind, like a creaky van headed down a road to nowhere special.
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