Nomadland – Film Review

A gentle, compassionate and intimate portrait of life on the road and the society’s margins, led by another masterful performance from Frances McDormand.

Not counting the re-released The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a trip to the Astor Theatre to see Amadeus, this was my first visit to the cinema catching a brand new release since last March! I probably should have made more of an effort, but this lyrical movie, which finds poetry in a harsh life of an ordinary woman, was a nice way to rediscover the joys of a new cinematic experience.

Nomadland shines a light on a group of people whose economic security was shattered by the 2008 global financial crisis, among them Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who suffers a double blow when she loses both her husband and her town. Empire, Nevada used to be one of the small American towns built around industry, and once the plant is closed down, it doesn’t take long for it to become a ghost town. Fern, who seems entirely without self-pity and prefers to refer to herself as “houseless” rather than “homeless”, begins a new life in her van, looking for seasonal work including a stint at a gigantic Amazon warehouse. She also becomes involved with a makeshift community of modern nomads, who, while essentially loners, manage to find time for each other, sharing tips on how to survive on the road and offering support.

In many scenes, Nomadland made me feel like I was watching a documentary, so I wasn’t in the least surprised to read later that the people Fern meets on the road are mostly real-life nomads, who bring a vivid and authentic presence to the movie. McDormand, a warm, natural and grounded actress without a hint of vanity (you could hardly think of a more unglamorous role), makes Fern blend effortlessly into this group and is never out of sync with the non-actors. It’s the kind of quiet but powerful performance where a single glance or a smile conveys more than five minutes of monologue. Fern also becomes an even more interesting character when the film lets you know that she’s not as bereft of options as previously assumed.

The only other recognisable face in the movie is David Strathairn, playing a grey-haired fellow nomad who develops a shy crush on Fern. The relationship between Fern and her potential love interest is really the only conventional narrative strand in the film, which is more of a slice-of-life snapshot than a story with clear dramatic developments. Things happen to Fern on the road, good and bad, but in a way that flesh out her world and experience rather than moving the story from A to B.

It is however an engaging and beautifully made snapshot, with sensitive and intelligent film-making from writer/director ChloĆ© Zhao, who approaches her subject with infinite empathy. The movie doesn’t airbrush Fern’s new life, which is a harsh existence where loneliness and dreary low-paid jobs are constant companions, not to mention the freezing cold and the danger of your ageing body or your van breaking down. But there are moments of serenity and stark beauty as well, especially when Fern is out in nature (though even then the movie makes sure that the natural sights are never too picture-perfect and still feel gritty). Without the movie ever getting obviously preachy, there’s an unspoken invitation to live more keenly, be more thoughtful about material possessions, and treasure small things like a dip in a pool.

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