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Review: 'Nomadland' (2020) Dir. Chloé Zhao

Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells and Peter Spears

Based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, young Chloé Zhao brings the tale of surviving America to life...


After losing her job after the US Gypsum plant in Nevada shuts down following the Great Recession, recently widowed Fern (McDormand) decides to sell most of her belongings and hit the road as a nomad.


While initially reluctant to embrace the nomadic life away from a modern America she knows, Fern is invited into many pockets of fellow nomads looking to escape and survive, just like her.


Meeting many faces who help her see what she is doing and why she is doing it, Fern discovers a whole new chapter to her life and embraces a new reality that may just give her a fresh zest for living again...

Set across the fallout of the Great Recession, this reflective drama is a piece of entertainment, but it's hard not to see and feel nothing but fact and truth about modern nomads escaping a modern society to find their own peace, salvation, escape and relationships. All of this to show that the economic monolith of modern America doesn't hold them up; they hold themselves.


The Oscar winning turn by Frances McDormand as Fern is your sole partner for this major road trip. She's recently lost her job and her husband, and now gives up on the American Dream by finding a new one out on the open road. How many of us wish we had the courage to pack up and leave all you know and who you are to find yourself again in a new world? Fern wants to breakaway from the country that took her life and discover one she can be reborn into again. Her only solace is old records that take her back to the past; happier times seen in photographs with her late husband and parents. McDormand is one of those actresses who conveys the norm when given the right material.


There are no frills here in her performance, and she and director Chloé Zhao clearly understand the source material and the passion to explore what changes the Recession had on people and society. It also is a touching tribute and reflective look at a culture who survive without the American dollar more than those who roll in it.


When an actress makes it look as if they're not even acting while still hitting you with heart, humour and emotion, then they deserve the acclaim as McDormand does. It's a very simple and fascinating role.

With so much authenticity on show, you'll be hard to differentiate whether we are watching a film or a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Everything just looks and feels so natural, including the performances which hold the story together like glue.

What's more immersive is many real van-dwellers / nomads make up the supporting cast of 'Nomandland'. And so they should. Those representing a group, a belief, a culture - whatever it is - should be given the chance to be front and centre. Linda May, Charlene Swankie and the famous Bob Wells are just some of the unrecognisable faces and names to many, but represent many millions of people (50m+ fans on YouTube must stand for something).


Even famed actor Strathairn as dweller Dave helps lend McDormand more of the drama and emotion to their roles, but he also looks and embraces the nomadic lifestyle to blend in with the cast of characters.


This is what is key to this film; the relationships formed and how nobody feels wasted or there for the sake of it. It's impossible not to take to everyone Fern meets as they remind us how to survive by simply changing tyres, cooking meals, appreciating the stars above or connecting with Mother Nature again.


Remove what people expect makes friendships or close knit communities, and instead look at the humanity that goes into it. It's during the quieter times of 'Nomadland' where you'll find yourself drifting into thought and thinking if this is something you could also achieve if you put your mind to it. What is missing from your life? What do you need to do to find yourself? How do you let go if something is holding you back?

Zhao doesn't just surround herself by talent on screen, she also does it off to bring this artwork to life. Ludovico Einaudi provides a sometimes haunting yet dreamy score and the cinematography is captured by Joshua James Richards. The locations we see on screen act as supporting characters to our nomads and prove there is so much untapped beauty outside of huge cities skyscrapers dotting the landscape. We see Arizona, South Dakota and Nevada as raw and natural as they come. Even when we take a look at the jobs Fern carries out to make extra money, they're devoid of grandeur and commercialism. It's helping farm potatoes, cook meals in a diner or pack parcels in a warehouse


The gorgeous shots of dusk and dawn with natural colours peppering the screen are postcard perfect. Sun kissed rocks, dusty plains, snow capped mountains and small town bars and dwellings take away all of the excess and present a quieter, simpler and natural beauty in what surrounds us. There is always a whisper of sound during the film which creates great atmosphere, be it forests, interstates or deserts. There's always something hear, no matter how quiet it is.


It's this that underpins the story - if you take yourself away from the noise, you can hear so much more from the world around you enticing you to discover it, and then you'll know what you need to do in order to move forwards.

A story that has heart-warming drama and relationships, it's a fascinating look at a growing American way of life sold by an immersive core performance from McDormand.




'Nomadland' is a co-production between Highwayman Films, Hear/Say Productions and Cor Cordium Productions


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