Monday 11 October 2021

Movie Review: Nomadland (2020)

A slice-of-life semi-documentary, Nomadland explores an off-the-grid society of individuals with a different sense of belonging.

The industrial town of Empire, Nevada, is abandoned after the last manufacturing plant shuts down. Fern (Frances McDormand) also loses her husband to disease. She packs up her belongings in a van and sets off to live a nomadic, house-less life, picking up odd jobs where she can find them and falling in with a community of like-minded individuals living on the margins. She meets fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn), and they start a friendship of sorts, but Fern is most comfortable on her own, in her van.

Less driven by plot and more an exercise in patient observation, Nomadland settles for capturing rugged natural beauty and unfiltered stories. McDormand and Strathairn are joined by a cast of non-actors sharing their experiences, and director ChloĆ© Zhao adopts a slow pace and non-judgemental stance, finding the humanity and pride within a group functioning outside the norms. 

Despite embracing solitude and a sense of individualism, moments of happiness and sadness emerge to underline common benevolence. Each in their own way the nomads are victims of circumstances and unforgiving economic or health crises, but they are united in nevertheless defining an independent road towards self-improvement and progress.

Fern is crusty and has difficulty conveying friendliness, but stresses the difference between homeless and house-less. Through her sister and later with Dave, she has options to live much more comfortably, at least in a strictly physical sense. But after the trauma of losing her town and her husband, the van comes to represent a deeply ingrained attachment to a form of stubborn personal freedom and self-reliance, and Nomadland succeeds in defining the lifestyle as a form of choice.

The hardships inherent in living in a cramped space on wheels are not glossed over. In between vistas of open landscapes and close-ups of a welcoming nature, Zhao takes the time to convey the constant battle against the bitter cold, finding the next casual job, dealing with sickness, the strain of equipment failure, and mundane but essential biological functions.

Fern, David and the community of people they meet all possess private motives to embrace a different style of life. Unburdened by traditional cinematic structure, Nomadland is similarly comfortable with a lack of convention.

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