★★★★½ - STUFF
- Why this Frances McDormand-starrer is the perfect film for 2020 -
Sometime in late 2021 – perhaps – Chloe Zhao will become known as the director of Eternals, which is an upcoming Marvel studios behemoth starring Angelina Jolie and many others, no doubt prancing around the galaxy in spandex in the hopes of saving the earth from the clutches of some evil wizard. Or so I imagine.
But until then, Zhao has been free to work in relative anonymity and turn out three disparate, but quietly beautiful films. Her Songs My Brothers Taught Meand The Rider were both set in Indigenous communities, far away from any vision of North America that usually makes it to our screens. Both featured non-actors in leading roles, portraying people based closely on themselves.
After a screening of The Rider, Zhao met Frances McDormand. McDormand had already optioned Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century and so a perfect creative collision of the right director being in charge of the right material occurred.
Nomadland, as with Zhao's previous films, is fictional, but only just. It is based on true stories of the road, of people who were cast out of work and security in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and who chose never to return. They are modern nomads, living a life John Steinbeck would recognise, travelling across the continent to where the seasonal work is, independent, but still a part of a mutable community of like-minded travellers.
McDormand is here as Fern. Her company-town life in Nevada has ceased to exist and her husband died years before. With enough money to kit out a van, but nothing like enough to buy even a cheap house, Fern hits the road, eventually meeting the people she needs to, to become a part of the community who call themselves “Nomadland”.
Many of these people are on-screen as themselves. Among the few professional actors, David Strathairn is wonderful as a potential partner for Fern.
Zhao's film is a slow-cooked triumph of detail and watchfulness over spectacle and drama. And yet, in these tiny, perfectly observed human stories, there is more being said about the broken state of America and its systems and values today, than in a dozen noisier, more attention seeking dramas.
With award season on its way, it's probably, deservedly, inevitable that Nomadland will be getting all the publicity it needs.
Personally, I found it to be pretty much the perfect film for 2020; a paean to all people who have re-examined their lives, shifted their priorities and rediscovered the profound magic of empathy and quiet resilience. You'll quite probably love it too.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Nomadland is now playing a preview season before releasing in cinemas March 2021.