BFI LFF 2020

Nomadland review – Chloé Zhao delivers a shot of pure empathy

Frances McDormand gives a spectacularly natural performance in this beautiful ode to life on the American road

Chloé Zhao is endlessly inquisitive about the everyday people who populate America. Her previous film, The Rider, based on the life of its star, Brady Jandreau, held a sympathetic lens to a rodeo rider whose injury cost him his livelihood. Nomadland takes a similar docu-fiction approach as it investigates the lives of the aged travellers documented in Jessica Bruder’s book of the same name, this time through the eyes of a fictitious, stoic widow.

“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless,” Fern (a brilliant Frances McDormand) says to a friend who doesn’t quite understand her circumstances. After losing her home and husband, she hit the road in a decked-out camper van that now doubles as a living space. Picking up odd jobs at Amazon warehouses and tourist sites, the film doesn’t hide the fact that she’s only just scraping by, but it also recognises that she’s content and rejects being reduced to her tragedies.

It would be easy for Zhao to make grand statements about capitalism in America – after all, the film opens with a title card explaining that Fern’s home of Empire, Nevada was quite literally wiped out by the recession – but the director is more interested in observing the day-to-day minutiae of the nomad community: trading tools and furniture, communal meals, the very unglamorous logistics of handling waste.

It’s not just the how, but the why, too. Nomadland portrays a very different kind of American Dream: not a sedentary life filled with white picket fences, but of independence and exploration. And explore Fern does. We see her parked at a snowy petrol station, a vast desert, and at RV parks in the company of her fellow travellers. With curiosity and awe, the camera sweeps over each area, absorbing the country’s plains in all their glory.

While McDormand’s performance is staggering – an early scene in which Fern sniffs her husband’s clothes as a farewell is particularly devastating – there is nothing showy about it. Stripped down entirely, it’s the actress at her most naturalistic. And despite the cast of non-actors, she fits in with them all seamlessly, absolutely one of the troupe. Her interactions feel nothing less than genuine. Her laughter is infectious and sincere.

Where Nomadland especially thrives is in the moments that celebrate community, friendship and generosity. There are beautiful sequences showing acts of kindness: an offer of a warm bed, a lighter as a small gift, not a goodbye but a “see you down the road.” There are hardships to endure, but these are superseded by the film’s infectious joy and natural warmth. Zhao has made a film that feels like a shot of pure empathy.

Nomadland was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020.

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