Renato (Luis Gerardo Méndez) lives in Mexico with his fiancée, Pamela (Pia Watson), and her young son. Renato's father, Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinosa) abandoned him and his mother, when he was a child. When he receives a phone call that his father is dying in a hospital in the US, he flies there and visits him. He learns that he has a half brother named Asher (Connor Del Rio) whom he first happens to bump into at a coffee shop before arriving at the hospital. Flavio tells them his dying wish: to send them together on a scavenger hunt to retrace his journey from Mexico to the US.
Half Brothers aims to be a zany, road trip and buddy comedy in the vein of The Hangover with the heart of a John Hughes film like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but it falls flat on both counts. Asher is one of the most annoying characters in recent memory. He's like nails on a chalkboard and mean-spirited from the very beginning when he mispronounces a barista named "Beatrice" as "Beat Rice." His rapport with Renato feels just as irritating rather than funny. Don't ask how he ends up stealing a goat which joins them on their journey.
The screenplay by Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman resorts to the lowest common denominator more often than not while forgetting to include wit or anything that generates laughter for that matter. It tries too hard to be funny while the attempts at humor often overstay their welcome until they become just tedious. Too many scenes feel contrived with poor editing and clunky use of flashbacks. When Half Brothers tries to add some pathos and a character arc to Renato and Asher, it fails yet again because it doesn't seem like either of them learned anything or truly changed in any believable way. If Renato and Asher actually had chemistry together like in far superior outrageous buddy comedies like Rush Hour, Half Brothers would have at least worked as a fun, mindless comedy. Instead, it's a painfully unfunny, dull and nauseating experience. Even at a running time of around 90 minutes, it feels more like 3 hours.
After her husband dies and she loses her job as well as her house in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) hits the road in her van to embark on a nomadic lifestyle. She lives in her van while taking seasonal jobs and befriending other nomads along the way.
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder, the screenplay by writer/director Chloé Zhao eschews a conventional narrative with provocative messages and very dramatic scenes. The characters' conflicts and battles are innate. Each of them goes through their own struggles as they cope with grief, uncertainty, poverty, emotional trauma and other deeply human issues. Fern remains resilient as she learns how to survive in her van while seeking help from fellow nomads who provide her with useful knowledge and skills. She gets to know some of them, i.e. Linda May, and offers them coffee. There's a heartfelt sense of community and warmth whenever they're together which, fortunately, never becomes schmaltzy. Concurrently, everything is understated, even the tensions between Fern and her sister whom she abandoned. Fern displays a modicum of emotional maturity when she accepts responsibility for the rift between them, although she doesn't elaborate on her statement nor does she go to the extent of acknowledging the emotional pain that she caused her sister by leaving her---which she does yet again after her sister graciously offers her a bed to sleep in. So, she's accountable to a fault and compassionate to a fault as well when it comes to the way she treats others who seem genuinely kind to her and who love her.
There's clearly a lot going on beneath Fern's surface as well as Nomadland's surface, but the screenplay doesn't delve deeply into those emotions and themes beneath the surface. It merely teases the audience instead. Showing Fern's daily life in minute detail, i.e. a scene that shows her pooping in her van, doesn't make it unflinching per se because it's not unflinching when it comes to something much more intrinsically valuable: emotional depth. Fern has regret, anger, sadness, confusion and frustration within her, but the screenplay shies away from showing those emotions head-on. Frances McDormand's character in Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri displayed those emotions more palpably and thoroughly than Fern does. Nomadland's poignancy comes not from the screenplay, then, but from McDormand's bravura performance which opens the window into Fern's heart, mind and soul. She deserves to be nominated for Best Actress. If only Zhao had designed a larger window, so-to-speak, Fern would have been a much more powerful and memorable character. Instead, she seems like she's at an emotional distance from the audience. To be fair, it's easier for a reader to get inside a character's head in a book than it is for an audience to get inside a character's head in a movie, so to achieve that feat, it takes a profound screenplay.
Nomadland's profundity comes from its visual poetry and use of symbolism, starting with Fern's name which is also the name of a flowerless plant that symbolizes eternal youth. The picturesque cinematography along with the gentle, unintrusive musical score enrich the film further. Zhao should also be commended for avoiding the use of flashbacks, voice-over narration, melodrama and an ending that neatly ties everything together with closure. Life often doesn't have any closure, which is a harsh truth that's briefly discussed in the film. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, Nomadland is a melancholic, understated slice-of-life with an Oscar-worthy performance by Frances McDormand that compensates for the film's lack of unflinching emotional depth.