Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is generating a lot of hype right now, having just won the top Golden Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a fascinating insight into the nomad lifestyle, and a showcase of Frances McDormand’s talent – the best performance I’ve seen during TIFF so far. Treading the line consistently between bleak and optimistic, loneliness and community, Nomadland kept me engaged and invested throughout, despite not a whole lot actually happening.
McDormand portrays Fern, a nomad who drives her run-down RV across America, working intermittent seasonal jobs and living a quiet life. She soon discovers a society of like-minded nomadic travellers and makes connections and new friends – but the nature of her lifestyle means relationships are found, lost, and found again consistently throughout the feature.
Director Zhao shows off beautiful American landscapes over the course of the movie, some so scenic and alluring that it’s tough not to get tempted to just pack up all your things, quit your job, buy an RV and become a nomad yourself (although to be honest if I tried that I’d die in half a day).
Nomadland is, more than anything, a testament to Frances McDermott’s ability to carry a movie singlehandedly. The supporting cast does an excellent job, but would be nothing without her fantastic, believable portrayal of Fern – a woman who you root for throughout. Before watching, I worried she would be a harsh, cold, anti-social character – Fern is anything but. She is kind, warm, friendly, and quick to make connections with strangers. Though, no connection she makes is stronger than that which she has with her RV; a home she has created for herself out of nothing.
An adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, Nomadland swings like a pendulum from uplifting scenes of Fern engaged with a community of travellers to downright lonely scenes of her bringing in the new year with a sparkler alone. You are shown both sides of the coin consistently, and I found myself questioning whether Fern’s lifestyle was idyllic or just lonesome throughout.
This is a captivating depiction of a niche subculture. Despite the colder, more somber moments in the movie, one optimistic line stuck with me above all else. Talking to Fern in the middle of the desert, one nomad explains: ‘One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You say, “I’ll see you down the road.”‘