A few years ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine about my indifference towards Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. “It’s a technically well-made film,” he noted. “But what did it really have to say?” Indeed, despite its setting of Mexico City’s tumultuous 1970s climate, climaxing with the infamous Corpus Christi Massacre, the film itself struck me as largely apolitical. Cuaron clearly sympathizes towards his protagonist and characters, yet the film’s seeming unwillingness to relate his ensemble’s predicaments to their turbulent backdrop hampered its ability to provide a true portrait of contemporary Mexico.
The same could be said about Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a picture that also conveys an empathy towards a working class in an era of socioeconomic discord and anxiety (it its case, during the aftermath of the Great Recession in the American West) yet doesn’t achieve the realism it strives for. The film’s cast, mostly compiled of real-life nomads, are seemingly playing idealized variations of their real-live selves, all benevolent, hard-working people trying to survive. If its intentions are amicable, Zhao’s story struck me more as a somewhat fantasized take on homelessness, one that I wish took a greater stand at observing the factors that triggered the 2008 housing crisis or critiquing the often-antagonistic behavior of big box retailers like Amazon.