NYFF 2020: Nomadland

Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Pandemic be damned, the 2020 Oscar race has begun. The Cannes Film Festival has taken place online and also with some limited capacity in-person screenings. The New York Film Festival has also taken place through drive-in and virtual screenings, for which anyone who isn’t a part of the registered press can simply pay for an online rental. For writer/director Chloé Zhao’s hotly anticipated third feature Nomadland, I purchased an online rental, and it was a somewhat complicated process where you could only watch the film during a four-hour viewing window on a Saturday evening. I feel like this was definitely worth my time and money, because I imagine lots of people talking about Nomadland in the coming months.

Fern (Frances McDormand) is a widow who can’t live in the house she shared with her husband anymore. The small Nevada town where she lived completely went under after a factory closes that destroys the livelihood of everyone there, so much that the town loses its zip code. She decides to take her old, beat up van which she has been living in, to an RV park where she meets a few interesting people who share their stories and serve as her mentors. We follow Fern as she adjusts to this off-the-grid life and we see her frustration as family and friends tell her how worried they are, and how much they wish she’d just come back to live a normal life. As the film goes on, it becomes increasingly clear why that’s not an option Fern would ever consider.

Nomadland is a quiet and restrained character study, with one of the best performances of Frances McDormand’s impressive career. It’s a decidedly non-showy role for her, as the film’s emotional weight is primarily displayed through McDormand’s wildly expressive face. We get so much about her character in scenes that don’t have any dialogue at all. We learn about her past, her grief, her regrets, what she wants out of life. And through all of this, Fern’s decisions make perfect sense. This is not someone who wants to blow her life up and engage in self-destructive behavior, this is someone who deeply longs to find out what it all means. McDormand’s compassionate performance commands the screen every step of the way.

Chloé Zhao’s use of non-actors, or real life ‘nomads’ to play the supporting characters here, is a deeply inspired choice. My mind immediately goes to Clint Eastwood’s atrocious The 15:17 to Paris, in which he uses non-actors to play themselves in a dramatic re-telling of a real life event. In Nomadland, I have no idea what’s scripted and what isn’t. When these characters are telling Fern their life stories, these scenes have a documentary feel to them, and the viewer feels like they’re visiting with some truly fascinating people, people who don’t feel like movie characters at all. The only other actor in the movie besides McDormand is David Stratharin, who also plays one of the people Fern meets. The mix of actors and non-actors feels seamless, because no one really feels like they’re giving a performance. There’s so much here that just feels like life.

Zhao adapted the screenplay from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name. With breathtaking Western cinematography from Zhao’s usual director of photography, Joshua James Richards, and a haunting score by Ludovico Einaudi, this film feels incredibly vivid and astonishingly alive.

This is a story about the forgotten people of America, and what they must do to survive the country’s many fundamental structural failures. I never thought I’d see a movie about ‘the forgotten people of America’ and be this moved by it. Do not go into this film expecting a traditional plot-driven three-act structure. Expect something more emotionally driven. Nomadland is an intimate story that is beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately life-affirming. It’s absolutely a journey worth taking.

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