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.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

Charlatan review – gorgeously composed but often frustrating biopic

Agnieszka Holland's portrait of a 20th century faith healer is insightful and beautifully shot, though let down by some glacial pacing

Identifying Features review – a mother’s hellish journey through Mexico

The debut film from Fernanda Valadez is a quietly tense and brutal descent into the borderlands, as a woman searches for her lost son

The Bike Thief review – compelling parable of the gig economy

This Brexit era riff on De Sica's neorealist classic is a great calling card for Alec Secăreanu but suffers from a slightly pedestrian script

Apples review – affecting examination of what we remember

Athenians are afflicted with contagious amnesia in a powerful directorial debut about the unexpected comforts of forgetting


Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

With cinemas still closed, we highlight the best new streaming releases, including the latest addition to the Greek weird wave

Leonardo DiCaprio Orders an American Remake of Another Round

Appian Way have won the remake rights to the Oscar-winning tale of debauchery and dancing, with DiCaprio potentially poised to star

Whistle Along to the Teaser Trailer for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler co-star in the legendary Hollywood director's take on the 1961 Best Picture winner

Oscars 2021: Nomadland Takes Home Best Picture, Best Actress & Best Director

Chloé Zhao makes history as first Asian woman to win Best Director, while Frances McDormand claims her third Oscar for Best Actress