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TIFF 2020 Review: Nomadland – “Will stay with you long after watching”

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Image courtesy of TIFF

Empire, a small town in Nevada, relied completely on a gypsum sheetrock plant for its survival.  Its shutdown during the recession meant an entire zip code was abolished.  As the factory closed, houses were abandoned and Empire was no more, a modern day ghost town.  With her town gone, and her husband recently passed away, Fern (Frances McDormand) has no choice but to move on.  With limited resources at her fingertips, she begins living in her van, working seasonal jobs at places like Amazon, before coming into contact with a group of self-proclaimed nomads who welcome her with open arms and teach her the ins and outs of living on the road. What follows is a portrait of a woman discovering freedom, beauty, and adventure amongst the stunning landscape of the American West.

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As Fern forges ahead, finding moments of peace on the road between her often gruelling jobs, she also experiences frustration and heartbreak. With no walls surrounding her or fences holding her back Fern learns what is important and finds the ability to let go.  But as she reminds an old student she is “not homeless, just houseless.”  Alongside her van, Vanguard (“because she’s very strong”), the nomadic lifestyle allows Fern to find a home within the massive and caring community she discovers.

However, Nomadland is not just about Fern, it is also a portrait of that community. Writer-director-producer-editor Chloé Zhao (is there anything she can’t do?) sheds light on a group of people first brought to her attention after a friend sent her the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.  As with her last feature, The Rider, Zhao surrounds the anchoring character of Fern with many non-actors, themselves nomads, some of whom were featured in the book.  In this way, there is at times a documentary feel to Nomadland and it is seamlessly integrated into Fern’s fictional story, grounding every moment in this discovered reality.

Chloé Zhao has an incredible knack for creating intimacy amongst vast expanses.  With cinematographer Joshua James Richards (whom Zhao also worked with on The Rider) she encapsulates some incredibly beautiful, boundless landscapes, yet never loses the connection to Fern.  The visuals coupled with a memorable, stunning, piano driven score by Ludovico Einaudi, allow Zhao to create a film that integrates the surroundings as a supporting character.

The actual supporting characters in this film, namely real-life nomads Linda May and Swankie are also remarkable and create many memorable moments on screen.  In particular, Swankie at one point shares with Fern a story of a trip she took to Alaska which is so emotionally and intensely told that you can visualize every moment of her journey despite it never being on screen.  They are gifted storytellers, and are able to do so alongside the formidable Frances McDormand who lays down another Oscar worthy performance in this film.  David Strathairn is also notable as a fellow nomad, someone Fern often runs into on the road and who attempts to forge a relationship with her, even as she continues to pull away.

Nomadland, is timely and timeless, a film that also makes you question how we treat our aging population and what is truly meaningful.  It reminds us about the importance of kindness to others, since this lifestyle depends on it so readily.  It prompts us to be open minded.  This movie is a complex vision, a film that will take on even more meaning with repeated viewings and something that will stay with you long after watching.  For Chloé Zhao this accomplishment and her continued success behind the camera will only mean we all benefit from her future work  – We’ll see you down the road.

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