NOMADLAND

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Chloe Zhao

Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn.

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From Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao (The Rider, etc) comes this neo-realistic look at an aspect of contemporary American society about which we see or hear little – the growing subculture of nomads who drift from place to place in their RVs looking for seasonal work wherever they find it to sustain their lifestyle. It is a close-knit community forged with empathy by people who have lost jobs and houses due to the economic downturn.

Our introduction to this subculture is via the recently widowed Fern (an understated and career best performance from dual Oscar winner Frances McDormand), who is “houseless not homeless” as she points out. She finds herself cast adrift from her small town in Nevada after the gypsum plant, which was the lifeline of the town, closes down. Fern meanders across the great open expanses of America’s midwest, finding occasional work in gas stations, fast food diners and even a giant Amazon packing warehouse during Christmas.

Not one to stay in the one place too long, Fern is constantly on the move. She interacts with many other such nomads she meets in campgrounds, and they share stories about life on the road. She also meets Dave (David Strathairn) a fellow traveller who becomes a potential romantic partner for Fern. She has to make a decision about whether to give up her freedom for a relationship and stability or keep on drifting, as this brings a frisson of gentle tension to the drama.

Nomadland spans a year as Fern drifts through a series of menial jobs and interacts with fellow nomads and rediscovers hope and purpose. This is the third feature film for Zhao, and she gives this intimate little film the look and feel of a slice of life documentary with her lowkey observational approach. Zhao brings a cool sense of detachment and an outsider’s viewpoint to this unusual world. It has a deliberately meandering nature that may not have broad appeal, but suits the melancholy nature of the material. 

The film is based on the nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, written by Jessica Bruder, although the screenplay from Zhao seems to consist of a series of vignettes as the nomads share their tales with Fern. It is hard to tell how much of these interactions are scripted or are just natural. There is some outstanding beautiful, lyrical cinematography from her regular collaborator Joshua James Richards that gives us an appreciation of the wide-open spaces and landscapes of America. It also depicts the failure of the American Dream and the decline of American factory towns in the first couple of decades of the twenty-first century.  Despite the downbeat nature of the material Nomadland deals with some big and universal themes and depicts the resilience of the human spirit.

Apart from McDormand and Strathairn, all of the people we meet in the film are actually real members of this unconventional nomadic community, and they are, in some ways, the real stars of the film. We meet characters like veteran nomads Bob Wells, Linda May, Patty, and Swankie, who are Fern’s confidantes and mentors and give her tips on surviving on the road. Their bittersweet experiences lend an authenticity to the material.

McDormand’s quiet performance is sympathetic, but she also lends her character a warmth, dignity and strength, and she carries the film. She also eschews makeup to give her features a suitably weathered and lived-in appearance, and she inhabits the character. On the strength of her performance here she would have to be the current favourite to earn her third well-deserved Oscar.

★★★★

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