Nomadland is the third feature from Chinese writer-director Chloé Zhao, inspired by 2017 non-fiction work Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
The film follows 60-something widow Fern (Frances McDormand), who finds herself in the untenable position of being unable to survive on her pension but also unable to find work in Empire, Nevada – one of many US towns left hollowed out in the wake of the 2008 recession. And so, without dwelling too much on her fate, she leaves her home behind to join what we learn is a growing movement of members of the “boomer” generation who are on the move, travelling from place to place, working temporary job after temporary job and living stripped-back lives out of campervans.
Through Fern, we meet some of these modern-day “nomads”, many of whom are not professional actors but whose real lives are cleverly woven into the movie’s fiction. We’re shown in unflinching detail the damage wrought by die-hard capitalism on communities and the individuals living within them, who are essentially used up and spat out – or “put out to pasture”, as one fellow wanderer puts it.
As with her extraordinary 2017 film The Rider, Zhao creates an overwhelming sense of place while finding beauty in the mundane through her ultra-realistic style, which skillfully blurs the line between documentary and drama. It teeters between presenting us with the bleak reality of life on the margins and teasing out unexpected moments of joy and profundity.
As Fern resists returning to a conventional lifestyle, the picture resists a conventional narrative. It simply moves us from scene to scene – the sterile, cavernous Amazon warehouse; the cluttered inside of her makeshift campervan; the expansive, moon-like Badlands of Dakota – immersing us in each intense moment as they unfold in real-time, before then abruptly moving us on, mirroring the protagonist’s experience of nomadic life. What holds it all together is the central performance from the singular McDormand – arguably a career-best – who brings an uncommon, raw authenticity to the role.
At times we feel pity for her character: reaching her age, it seems unforgivable that she must survive in such harsh conditions, sleeping without any heat in a beat-up van in freezing temperatures, relieving herself in a bucket and enduring hard and mind-numbing labour. Yet two-time Oscar winner McDormand’s understated performance shows that beneath an ostensible vulnerability lies a strength and resilience. From others on the road, Fern learns an ultimately liberating type of radical self-reliance.
While there is much loneliness and sadness as the protagonist mourns the loss of her past life and those she leaves behind each time she moves on, there is also a sense of hope and a genuine appeal to this new existence: never knowing who or what experiences the next stop may bring propels her and us on. Freedom from an excess of material possessions gives those few items she owns new value. The network of nomads provides a stream of unfamiliar and fascinating faces; it’s a community with an opportunity for connection. And as Fern is told by a charismatic leader, there is never a need for goodbye, only “see you down the road.”
With this follow-up to The Rider, Zhao has cemented her talent for transporting us to and immersing us in marginalised lives and places. But the director resists the temptation to pass judgement or convey a message. Her films simply offer a window through which we are given the chance to learn what we may from our time spent in the company of her subjects.
Nomadland leaves one with a simmering sense of injustice at the failure of capitalism to deliver a decent quality of life for so many, but also an admiration for the overwhelming strength of the human spirit to survive and flourish under the most unexpected of conditions. But most importantly, its scenes and faces linger long after the credits roll – the sign of a truly great film, certainly the best of 2020.
Nomadland is released nationwide on 1st January 2020.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2020 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Nomadland here: