Film review: ‘NOMADLAND’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Nomadland depicts a largely unseen but apparently growing subculture, people who have forgone the dream of home ownership and suburban security to travel the country, working itinerantly and living in their vans.  Written and directed by Chloe Zhao and based on Jessica’s Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, this wonderfully rugged, humane and moving film has rightly received a host of accolades including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Here, 60-something Fern (Frances McDormand) now widowed and having seen her town wiped off the map after recession closed the local factory, decides to take up the nomad lifestyle.  Traversing the American west in a van she’s customised into a home, she becomes acquainted with a burgeoning community of mostly older people learning to live in a highly unglamourous but impressively self-sufficient way.  Like her, they’ve adopted this challenging way of life in part as a response to economic and personal difficulties but mostly as an expression of a maverick individualist spirit usually shackled by subservience to social convention.  Nomadland is also about perceptions of gender identity as Fern is desperate to retain her individual agency and rebuffs attempts by others for her to live a so-called normal existence for a woman of her age.

Composed of layers and fragments depicting Fern’s experiences, Nomadland doesn’t follow a traditional narrative.  There are mini-dramas largely resulting from the inevitable obstacles that Fern encounters as part of the nomad lifestyle but this film is more like a fly-on-the wall documentary that immerses us in Fern’s journey.  With its naturalistic performances and matter-of-fact style, the film avoids contrived sentimentality but it’s still at times very emotional; a scene in which Fern watches as a fellow nomad, diagnosed with terminal cancer, sells her possessions had everyone in the cinema in tears.

Chloe Zhao effectively uses the vastness, solitude and silence of the American west through which Fern travels to give the film a solemn, meditative feel.  This isn’t a slow TV-style experience, though, as the uncertainty of what awaits Fern in this unforgiving landscape and economically stuttering world provide constant tension.

Zhao tells much of the story through close-ups on Frances McDormand’s face which, as rugged as the surrounding country, conveys a mix of wisdom, naivete, toughness and vulnerability.  It’s a superb performance from McDormand that will no doubt make her an Oscar favourite.  She is one of only two professional actors in this film, the other being David Strathairn who is also excellent appearing periodically as a would-be love interest for Fern.  The rest of the cast are actual nomads who uniformly deliver wonderfully honest unaffected performances.

While far from derivative, this film still brings to mind a number of other cinematic depictions of people seeking personal truth and trying to retain dignity and individual integrity amid economic hardship.  These include Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the Reese Witherspoon’s film Wild and David Lynch’s The Straight Story.  Also, its depiction of a hard scrabble existence on society’s lower economic rungs echoes 2017’s superb Lean on Pete as well as Ken Loach’s remarkable depictions of working-class struggle in I Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed YouNomadland, though, presents a more hopeful and supportive world than the grim economically depressed hell of Loach’s films.

While highlighting the difficulties these people face, Nomadland doesn’t condescend to them or treat them as tragic victims.  Similarly, it doesn’t show Fern as acting out a personal crisis.  Her journey, like that of the people she meets, is seen as a hard but legitimate lifestyle choice and the objections of those who wish she (and others) would abandon it as well-meaning but narrow-minded.

Hypnotic, gritty and moving from beginning to end, Nomadland is one of the year’s finest films.

Nick’s rating: *****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Chloe Zhao.

Release date: 4th Mar 2020.

Running time: 108 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show

 

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