Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Nomadland is writer and director Chloé Zhao’s third feature-length film and is a beautiful and compassionate portrait of people living on the outskirts of American society.
In 2011, after the economy collapsed, it leaves the rural town of Empire in Nevada uninhabitable, and sixty-something widower Fern (Frances McDormand) is forced to live out of her modified van, driving during the day and sleeping in car parks at night. Mourning the loss of her husband, as well as Empire’s end, Fern travels across the American West in search of seasonal work, but even though she’s alone in her van, it’s not a solitary voyage. Working shifts at an Amazon warehouse, food processing plants, and as a cleaner at a caravan park, she meets others in similar circumstances, and discovers a welcoming community of caravan-driving people whose lives on the road are challenging, but rewarding.
These modern-day nomads seek experience and the joy of today, rather than endless servitude and the American dream with its unrealistic promise of possible riches at some point in the future. Home, for these people, is in who they meet, not where they live; their lives are enriched by the connections they make, and the experiences they have, along the way. Offering a non-judgmental listening-ear, Fern learns of their own traumas and losses –poverty, death, family feuds, illness– and that their lives on the road offer them a freedom unavailable anywhere else. By being transient, they have control over their lives, rather than as outsiders struggling to survive on the edge of society. Reinvigorated, through being present in the here and now, they can enjoy the beauty of the world around them; they have a true connection to nature and living.
At times, Nomadland feels like a documentary, and it’s no surprise that the people Fern interacts with are real-life nomads, playing fictional versions of themselves. There’s an authenticity and melancholy to their performances, and Zhao provides them with an uninterrupted platform to speak and share; this allows for a rich character study of an arguably forgotten underclass in America.
As Fern, McDormand offers a commanding but subtle performance. She offers empathy and encouragement, always being present, listening, and witnessing their lived experience, but never burdening the space with a big acting ‘moment’. Indeed, the understated interactions McDormand offers, where she matches the pace and even rhythm of the nomads in conversation, are masterful. Less is more, and McDormand’s beautifully restrained responses show what power she has in her craft; the conversations between Fern and the other characters are filled with intimacy and tenderness.
Nomadland’s poetic realism is heightened by Joshua James Richards’ stunning cinematography and production design providing a vitality in the desert with its temporary inhabitants: searing scenes of natural beauty contrasting with the mundanity of factory work. The theme running through it all is a vividness of the present – a world of stunning vistas and soft conversations, juxtaposed with the temporary harshness of industrial life.
Never patronising, and avoiding polemic, Zhao tactfully manages to explore the world of the low paid and homeless, whilst offering compassionate insight into the lives of the people who make up our service economy. Nomadland, with its beautiful simplicity, and wonderful performances, manages to be an elegant, profoundly moving film which shows the real value of living, rather than just surviving.
The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack