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Green Light in the City

Film Review: Nomadland

3 May 21 words: Miriam Blakemore-Hoy

Miriam Blakemore-Hoy takes a look at this year’s Best Picture winner...

Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn
Running time: 108 minutes

Riding on the back of Oscar Awards season, Nomadland couldn’t have been released at a better time. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role—I was genuinely curious about the film after all the hype.

With a gentle, flowing story arc and an organic directorial approach, Chloé Zhao has drawn together a completely unique film that focuses on the lifestyle of nomadic people living in America—people who live in vans or RVs, people with a transitory way of life. It is also the story of a widow, Fern, on the verge of retirement, who has found herself in a difficult position. With the consequences of the recession of 2007-09 making themselves felt, the small (real-life) desert town of Empire, Nevada, has become a ghost-town, when the industrial plant that employed, housed and supported its residents was shut down. Although she tries hard to hold on to the life that she and her husband Beau shared together, it slips out of her grasp altogether. Packing up all the possessions she needs, she makes for the open road in her van.

It’s difficult sometimes to work out where the line between fiction and reality begins and ends. In a way, by allowing yourself to be immersed entirely in the incredibly beautiful scenery and the raw performances, it doesn’t really matter or make a difference in the enjoyment of it, and still I found myself wondering. There is a weight and authenticity to the “characters” that would be almost impossible to recreate if they didn’t have a foundational basis in the real world.

Zhao shows a real empathy towards people who are otherwise rendered invisible in mainstream society

I delved deeper and discovered that apart from Frances McDormand (Fern) and David Strathairn, all of the other “characters” are played by non-actors—people playing themselves in a fictional version of their real lives. Linda May, Bob Wells and (Charlene) Swankie, are particularly amazing in their performances. One of the plot points is fabricated, alongside Fern’s fictional journey, but apart from that it seems pretty faithful to the truth. It’s not a documentary—although there are definitely docudrama elements—nor is it a Borat-style filming of real people without their knowledge. Instead, it’s something in-between.

Zhao shows a real empathy towards people who are otherwise rendered invisible in mainstream society. It’s not so much about politics, but getting to the heart of what has brought these people to the way of life that they follow. Each person has a deep well of personal or financial trauma or loss that they are learning to live with. There is a particularly poignant moment when Bob and Fern talk about grief and Bob opens up about the real event of his son’s suicide, something he clearly struggles to talk about even now. Somehow this group of people have formed a community, where even though they are each on their own individual journeys, they are not alone, because they have each other.

“See you down the road.”

Did you know? Zhao’s historic Oscars win was censored in China, her place of birth, after a magazine interview resurfaced in which she criticised the country as “a place where there are lies everywhere”. The ceremony was not broadcast by any mainland media channels, and social media posts about the awards were taken down.

Nomadland is available now on Disney+

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