Review by Frances Winston
Directed by: Chloé Zhao – Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells, Linda May, Swankie
Available on Disney+ now
Hot on the heels of its Oscar triumphs, this film, based on the 2017 non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder, is finally available to audiences here. Award winning director, Zhao, has taken the factual tome and woven a fictional tale around it. However, she has cleverly employed many real life nomads as supporting cast, with McDormand and Strathairn being the only professional actors featured, giving this an authenticity lacking in so many similar offerings.
McDormand, in her Oscar-winning role, stars as Fern, who, when her husband dies, and the main employer in her area closes down, becomes a van-dwelling working nomad, taking seasonal work in Amazon, and living a houseless existence in her van. The movie follows her as she navigates the reality of this enforced lifestyle choice, not always prepared for the challenges it throws at her, while also forging friendship with fellow nomads, particularly after attending a dessert rendezvous hosted by Bob Wells, who here, and in real life, is a van-dwelling guru.
The character studies featured here are deeply affecting and powerful. It feels like something written by John Steinbeck back in the 30s. However, this is very much the modern world, and shows a slice of humanity that many either are not aware of or simply choose to ignore – the disenfranchised, who either through choice or necessity, cut themselves off from conventional living.
Zhao not only directed this, she also wrote, edited, and produced it, which gives it a very clear singular vision. There is no ‘too many cooks’ scenario happening here. McDormand gives a subtle and sublime performance, and her non professional co-stars actually hold their own pretty well. One of the hardest things in the world is to play yourself, but Zhao has ensured that there is no self consciousness in any of the performances from the real life van-dwellers.
Acting aside, a special mention must go to the cinematography here, with the sweeping landscapes taking a central role alongside the characters. It is beautifully shot, and will almost have you yearning for the simplicity of the life these nomads have chosen.
In an era of blockbuster action films, and adaptations of books that just try too hard, this is quite refreshing. There’s an acronym used by many in the arts, K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid, and Zhao certainly seems to subscribe to this philosophy. This is simple without being silly. It strips the story back to the bones, and tells it as it is.
This is a lovely film that will have you rethinking many aspects of life, and deserving of all the awards it has received.