Investigative journalist Jessica Bruder specializes in writing about American sub-cultures. After three years living in a campervan, researching the nomadic lifestyle, she published Nomadland in 2017.
Director Chloé Zhao has now turned this award-winning book into a film, based on her own screenplay.
Pivotal character Fern is a role almost tailor-made for Frances McDormand. After losing her husband, her job, and her entire town, she takes to the road in an RV, joining the network of nomads. Made up predominantly of older people, too old to start over, but not quite old (or wealthy) enough, to retire, these nomads live in their campers, finding work where they can. Many of them, including Fern, annually join the Amazon CamperForce, a seasonal job program, specifically aimed at nomads.
What is extraordinary about this work is that most of the other roles are played by real-life nomads. Zhao draws out exquisite performances from Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, and the many other wonderful human beings who populate the screen. The only other major role played by a professional actor is that of Dave, brought to life by David Strathairn.
Both McDormand and Strathairn bring their usual, uncompromising talent to these roles, imbuing their on-screen friendship with a heart-wrenching authenticity.
Nomadland walks the fine line between documentary and dramatization. There is not a single, redundant scene, or gratuitous story-line. Here is life, in all its messy, surprising, heart-breaking, and sometimes divine, glory. Although many people ended up in this lifestyle due to the financial collapse of 2008, there are many who have chosen it, or having been forced into it, subsequently embraced it. Everyone’s story is unique, and yet there is shared humanity. To call this work “life-affirming” would be glib and simplistic. Perhaps it more affirms the urge to live; to find reasons to keep going in the simple act of putting new shelves in your RV, or finding thousands of swallows nesting in a cliff-face.
Zhao has made a quiet masterpiece. Her direction shows that she knows what she wants, and trusts her actors and other creatives, to give it to her. McDormand gives the performance of a life-time, (but then doesn’t she always?). And the cast of nomads make this something truly special.
This is a movie that reminds us why film matters. Moving, funny, respectful, humane, and authentic, it is the sort of work by which all others will be judged. Zhao is clearly a force-of-nature who should be given the kind of funding and support that white male directors with less talent are regularly granted.
And this is surely another Oscar-contender for McDormand.
Nomadland is currently in preview season for two weeks, and releases officially on March 4th.