DIRECTED BY: Chloé Zhao
STARRING: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells
Reeling from the early death of her beloved husband and the loss of their home in Empire, Nevada Fern lives in a kitted-out van, travelling from town to town and picking up short-term seasonal work where she can get it.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland is a drama based on Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The film focuses on Fern, a widow and substitute teacher from Empire, Nevada, which once was a company town that was literally wiped off the map after the closure of the gypsum mining plant due to the Great Recession. Now, Fern lives in her camper van, exploring the road outside of the conventions of modern-day society.
After receiving critical acclaim for her sophomore feature The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland has been gaining just as much critical attraction already on the festival circuit, winning the Golden Lion, SIGNIS and Fair Play Cinema Awards at Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival. Much like The Rider, Zhao gives the audiences a glimpse into lost America, focusing on forgotten people that have lived their life but unfortunately can’t afford to retire and also can’t afford to live in a house either, so they travel wherever they can, picking up any and every job they can. It’s an interesting examination into the modern-day nomad, the film practically acts as documentary meets fiction, as Zhao treats nomads, particularly including real-life nomads in acting roles here, with empathy and time to listen and understand their way of life. The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is fantastic here with how he captures the American desert, as well as the wonders of nature that Fern comes across, and the score by Ludovico Einaudi is beautiful too.
Frances McDormand gives a great performance too as Fern, portraying an effortless amount of tenderness and inner pain that she’s going through. Fern is a person that gets along with everyone she meets, particularly Swankie and Linda May as they attend an RV show, but while she finds new friends and has moments of happiness, at night she can’t help but think on the memories of the past to maintain her pain, from old family photos to preserving plates that her father held onto. When Fern constantly encounters fellow nomad Dave, there’s definitely a connection between the pair, though Dave is willing to say how he feels, Fern keeps herself distant. She is a complex character that McDormand brings volumes to. However, with the films opening sequence involving Fern working at an Amazon warehouse, with everyone smiling and enjoying their work (which obviously Amazon would have had to have sign-off on), I know this will not sit right with a number of viewers, particularly with the petition of workers in the company calling on management to improve working conditions late last year.
An interesting road trip film focusing on those forgotten Americans, Nomadland is a beautifully crafted film by Zhao, with gorgeous cinematography, a wonderful score and an excellent performance by Frances McDormand.