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  • Post last modified:01/09/2023

Nomadland: Life of a Vandweller


Frances McDormand. Photo: Searchlight Pictures

Watching this movie reminded me of a younger relative of mine. I haven’t met him for many years; he’s spent most of his time on the road in northern Sweden and Norway, taking odd jobs and always making sure he’s close to nature. He seems like a wandering soul who’s happier that way. I’m sure this would be a film for him, as it portrays a genuine culture of nomads in the United States. My relative may not own a van, as far as i know, but he would appreciate the minimalistic lifestyle. 

A van becomes her new home
In 2011, Fern’s (Frances McDormand) life changes dramatically. Her husband recently died and now she’s lost her job when US Gypsum shuts down its plant in Empire, Nevada. She packs things up and finds a van that becomes her new home. For a while, she works at an Amazon plant; when her sister asks Fern to come and live with her and her husband, she firmly declines. Then a co-worker, Linda May, tells her about a community of nomads who are gathering in the desert in Arizona; they are organized by a man called Bob Wells, who sort of looks like Santa Claus. Fern hesitates but eventually seeks out the community, where she makes new friends. But since they are nomads, the time always comes to move on… 

Staying true to the background
It started as a journalistic endeavor, as Jessica Bruder wrote a book about how some people were trying to survive after the Great Recession, by embarking on a traveling lifestyle. McDormand and producer Peter Spears bought the rights and found their director in Chloé Zhao; McDormand had just seen The Rider (2018), a sort of contemporary Western, and saw how Zhao might be the right person to turn ”Nomadland” into a movie. 

It seemed important to everyone involved to stay as true to the background of Bruder’s book as the author herself. That closure of the US Gypsum plant in 2011 happened for real and most of the nomads in the film are not played by actors, but actual nomads; Linda May, the enigmatic Bob Wells and others play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves. I didn’t know they were amateurs when I saw the movie and was moved by Wells and Charlene Swankie, who dreams of going to Alaska one last time where she can die in peace. The professional actors are obviously not too shabby either. I’ve always been a fan of David Strathairn and this is a beautiful part for him, as one of the nomads who might be of romantic interest to Fern but also serves as an example of someone who finds a reason to give up that lifestyle and makes Fern think about also doing it. 

McDormand delivers another hugely impressive effort as a woman who’s always been different from her family and can’t easily adapt to the company of other people.

McDormand delivers another hugely impressive effort as a woman who’s always been different from her family and can’t easily adapt to the company of other people. Her performance along with cinematographer Joshua James Richards’s majestic shots of the Nevada and Arizona wilderness make us understand Fern’s choices and this community better, regardless of whether we want to embrace it or not. 

Nomadland does not provide us with a deep analysis of what happened to America after the Great Recession, but its earnest, fact-based approach helps lay the foundation for a gripping, beautiful postcard from a part of the country that was badly hurt. It shows us the danger of creating a town around a plant belonging to a specific company, as if it’s a guarantee it will exist forever. Still, the film has a positive attitude, offering a solution for some people. 

I can also see how Nomadland might be part of a terrific double bill with 99 Homes (2015), Ramin Bahrani’s excellent film about a construction worker trying to survive after being evicted. 

Nomadland 2020-U.S. 108 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Peter Spears, Chloé Zhao. Written, directed and edited by Chloé Zhao. Book: Jessica Bruder. Cinematography, Production Design: Joshua James Richards. Music: Ludovico Einaudi. Cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May (Linda May), Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, Derek Endres. 

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actress (McDormand). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director. BAFTA: Best Film, Director, Actress (McDormand), Cinematography. Venice: Golden Lion. 

Last word: “You could see [Zhao] listening to these individuals telling their stories, and then collaborating with them to fold their own narratives into the script. Chloé really allows people to choose how they want to represent themselves. The safety of fiction filmmaking, in my opinion, actually pulls out a level of honesty and authenticity that I think would be impossible if this was a documentary purporting to truth.” (Hannah Peterson, Zhao’s assistant, Indiewire)

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