At the LFF 2020 one of my very favourite films was Nomadland. So beautifully crafted, Chloe Zhao’s film captures not just the activities of the itinerant travellers who people this film but their very innermost identities. And, of course, she uses her lead actress to perfection. Well worthy of the 2021 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress, and numerous other awards.
The film shows how Fern loses her job, then, after her husband dies, now alone and in her 60s, Fern (Frances McDormand) also loses her home. She was working for Amazon and tells a young woman, “I’m just houseless. Not homeless.” She is friendly with a fellow worker who lives in a RV. So, when her job finishes at Amazon and she can’t find another job in that area, she leaves her small town in Nevada and sets out alone in her old van. She travels around the American Midwest, working as she goes. She meets lots of different people living out of their vans and hears their stories. Fern is often alone and has to cope with the hazards of being single and living in a vehicle which frequently needs repairs. There is a lot in the film about grief and loss. There are some good little character pieces and a towering performance by McDormand.
Fern becomes part of a community of nomads – those who in the modern age are travelling through America, stopping to work whenever they need to and can find a job. The travellers form little communities and Fern is welcomed into these and makes friends everywhere she goes. The itinerant travellers sit together around a camp-fire and tell stories about their lives. She becomes particularly friendly with a fellow traveller, Dave (David Straithern). He is sweet on Fern and when he decides to settle down, he offers Fern the opportunity to give up the nomadic life and also settle somewhere.
The other person that Fern becomes close to is Swankie (Charlene Swankie). There is a very sad moment in the film when Fern learns that 75-year-old Swankie has terminal cancer. Swankie later chooses not to go into any kind of hospital to die, but to continue travelling.
Almost all the people in the film are real people, not actors. But their stories are not necessarily their true lives. The conversations seem improvised and come across as natural conversations. They share tips on how to survive the often very difficult travelling life, especially how to keep safe as a single woman as well as how to repair the van! Very necessary as Fern lives in an old small RV. There are also social evenings so that when they are together, the nomads are happy. Most of the nomads are middle-aged folk who have had to give up their homes as the economic recession has left them without jobs and with no money. But all lead their own lives and Fern frequently finds herself alone. We see her undertaking various jobs that she finds on her way. The film is inspired by personal anecdotes from the lives of the actual nomads. Chloe Zhao has written as well as directed the excellent movie. It is based on 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder.
The director uses the landscape in an almost poetic way with beautiful vistas and sunsets shot by Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer. The climate comes across well to and we feel for Fern and the other travellers as they shiver in bad weather.
The main character is, of course, Fern and Frances McDormand is absolutely magnificent in the part. Her performance is quiet, sensitive and most realistic. She blends in well with the non-actors (apart from the actor Straithern) and the whole cast portray the real nomads with clarity and conviction.
The film is highly recommended and, as the cinemas have now re-opened, you can actually see this on a lovely big screen. Let’s finish, as the nomads, who don’t say goodbye to each other on parting, but “See you down the road!”