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LFF 2020 Review: Nomadland – “An awe-inspiring showcase of the American spirit”

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Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo by Joshua Richardson. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Seconds before Nomadland began, I closed down an article I had been reading about a celebrity who had bought a house for $27million, remodelled it and then sold it for $31million. With those alien numbers clouding my thoughts, I focused on Frances McDormand’s face as her character leaves her only home – a small van – to trudge along a cold path, figure becoming a dark pinprick, enveloped by the cold, white vista. For the next two hours, I watched perfection unfurl.

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McDormand plays Fern, a modern nomad (no fixed abode or brick-and-mortar property), traversing the United States in pursuit of temporary work and new experiences. Fern is not young, yet her competency far outweighs the rest of us house-dwelling, soft-handed suburbanites. Nomadland follows a year in Fern’s life, director Chloe Zhao laying out the sacrifices and strong bonds formed by these urban travellers. It is also a love letter to the American landscape and to a demographic I had no prior awareness of. Within moments of watching, it felt silly to have never wondered where those temporary Amazon warehouse workers go after the Christmas rush, or who cleans the campsite toilets or cooks the burgers in an isolated roadside diner.

Nomadland is not just Fern’s story, she acts as the gateway to a hidden world that skirts close to cinema vérité, a celebration of a large group of older people who, through choice or circumstance, want a closer, more spiritual relationship with the natural world. Fern meets many characters on her odyssey, including David Strathairn as Dave, a man escaping the shame of his previous actions. In a nice touch, Strathairn’s own son, Tay plays his estranged son.

So much happens that it’s hard to know what to highlight. In one memorable scene, Fern sits in her truck merrily playing the flute before an attack of diarrhoea gets the better of her. Realism is not glamorous, and yet Nomadland demystifies this type of life, showing an appreciation for an experience neither convenient nor easy, but which speaks to true freedom. Notably, the characters are all kind and helpful, the good manners on display feel almost jarring. Nomadland remains rooted in our reality: mobile phones appear, Facebook groups are casually mentioned, and there is ample discussion about the comfort of a good chair. Zhao manages to mix the mundane kindness of breaking bread with poignant discussion of trauma and grief, the merits of euthanasia and the burden of debt. She understands the wanderlust that resides within the human soul, this movie acting as a study of the differences between loneliness and being alone, of attachment and separation and of the definition of ‘home’.

Nomadland is also a stunning visual feat. Zhao and DP Joshua James Richards lend it a Malick-like quality, full of mesmerising wide-angle scenes of magic hour in rural America, each new landscape a balm for the eyes. Unsurprisingly, Frances McDormand is phenomenal, playing Fern with a smile and an anecdote masquerading a craving for company, if only on her own terms.

There is only one negative: The cruelties and ironies of nature may deny Nomadland being seen on the largest screens possible. This is a terrible shame.

Sad, celebratory and at times, startling, Nomadland must be seen. It is an awe-inspiring showcase of the American spirit.

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