Movies

Nomadland’s Stealth Romantic Comedy

When I saw David Strathairn look at Frances McDormand, I thought: Well, well, well.

A still from Nomadland: Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as Dave sit on lawn chairs in front of a scenic backdrop.
Hearts adrift: Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as Dave in Nomadland. Searchlight Pictures/EPK

When I finally saw Nomadland after hearing about it for months, I have to say I was a little baffled that more people didn’t have the reaction to it that I did. I’d read a fair bit of rapturous praise for the film, which is the favorite to win Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscars, and lately, some thoughtful pushback on whether it deserves all that acclaim. But it seemed to me that the critical establishment had ignored a very important aspect of Nomadland: David Strathairn is in this movie. And he has a little romance with Frances McDormand in it. Um, cute!

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Nomadland, you likely know by now, is about America’s modern-day nomads, a real faction of mostly older people who travel around the country living in their vans, often because they can afford neither a stable place to live nor to stop working. The movie centers on one van dweller, Fern, played by McDormand, and many of the other roles in the film are played by real nomads rather than professional actors.

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So I didn’t even know Strathairn was in the movie until he showed up at a gathering of nomads in Arizona that Fern trekked to, looking a bit hoary and disheveled, but, let’s be honest, still low-key ruggedly handsome. Strathairn’s handsomeness is unassuming and understated—or maybe I just think so because it took me so many years to realize this. It wasn’t until I rewatched a favorite childhood movie, A League of Our Own, as an adult that it dawned on me: that guy. (I think I also kind of had him confused with Tom Amandes.) So yes, I sat up a little straighter in my seat (which was my bed, thanks Hulu) when I saw him.

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I missed it in my initial viewing of the movie, but you first see Strathairn (playing a character named Dave) passing out some food to his fellow nomads, grub that he mentions is vegan. Setting the template for their dynamic for the rest of the film, Fern declines, saying that she is a carnivore. But the scene where I really noticed him came soon after: He and Fern are circling a pile of nomad paraphernalia that’s up for grabs, and when she picks up a can opener, he speaks up, gently volunteering that it doesn’t work so well and suggesting that she take another one instead. He tries to engage her in conversation, but she keeps politely shutting him down, just like she did with the vegan food. Watching this exchange, I thought to myself something on the order of, well, well, well. Strathairn is not exactly Checkov’s gun, but a well-known male actor had appeared on screen and taken a liking to our female protagonist: I could see where this was headed.

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My need to root out a hidden rom-com inside every movie may not be my finest critical instinct, but I’m sure I’m far from the only one so afflicted. I sometimes think of something Mindy Kaling, onetime patron saint of women who like rom-coms a little too much, tweeted around the time the movie Inception came out: “I liked when Joseph Gordon Leavitt kissed [Elliot] Page #InceptionWasARomanticComedy.” It had almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but I liked that part too, Mindy. So I have to appreciate that Nomadland threw a bone to all of us saps out there with this little Dave/Fern storyline.

After their not very meet-cute can-opener moment, the next significant interaction between Dave and Fern comes at a bar when he asks her to dance, tripping over his words a little. She says no at first, but then agrees. They head to the dance floor, where his moves are not suave but average, and sweetly slightly clumsy; he doesn’t know where to look, and at one point he lets out a little “woo!” that isn’t itself embarrassing but is accompanied by a small but to my mind very embarrassing arm gesture that absolutely slayed me. This is not the dancing of two movie stars locking eyes and falling for each other, but two people old enough to have lived through some hard years, deciding, awkward as it might be, to try to have a good time anyway. Dave disappears for a while after that, but I knew he’d be back.

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The two meet again later in the movie when both have found seasonal work in the Badlands, where the pattern of Dave reaching out gingerly and Fern hesitating continues. He buys her licorice because he doesn’t like her going to get cigarettes alone, and she should quit smoking anyway; she disagrees. He tries to help her move some boxes, but he only makes things worse when he breaks one of her prized possessions. But the two do eventually settle, tentatively, into a friendship. It’s entirely chaste—I don’t think they ever so much as hold hands—and the most romantic line of dialogue is almost the antithesis of a rom-com-ending rousing speech in its plainspokenness: “I like you,” Dave says to Fern when he convinces her to visit his family’s house for Thanksgiving. “You’re a good person. You get along with people, for the most part. I like being around you.” McDormand and Strathairn are movie stars, but it still feels like this is the sort of love story, if you can call it that, you don’t often see on screen, one between older people that skips the swoony beats in favor of smaller, more ambiguous but no less weighty moments.

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There’s another movie in this year’s Academy Awards race that’s been said to have a romantic comedy embedded within it, Promising Young Woman. That love story doesn’t end well, and neither really, you probably won’t be surprised to discover, does Nomadland’s. But where PYW’s rom-com section becomes part of the movie’s indictment of toxic masculinity, Nomadland’s romance falls apart for much more mundane, and therefore, I think, more heart-wrenchingly sad and convincing reasons: Fern, grieving the death of her husband, clearly struggles with whether she’s open to the possibility of romance or indeed any sort of life that doesn’t leave ample room for solitude and mourning. I enjoyed PYW’s romantic interlude, but Nomadland’s was real, and Fern and Dave’s non-relationship, though by no means the movie’s main subject, is touching in its sweetness and subtlety. So I consider it my duty to alert those of you out there who might suffer from romantic-comedy brain damage similar to my own and may have been on the fence about Nomadland because of that: Watch this movie. It mostly lacks the -com and the dramatic declarations of love that you might find in an actual rom-com, but it holds pleasures nonetheless for those among us who enjoy watching people fumble in their search for companionship, not to mention crushing on David Strathairn.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.

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