- Emma Simmonds
- 26 April 2021
Chloé Zhao directs the great Frances McDormand in a strikingly sensitive drama
Desperately moving from start to finish, this ode to a lost America presents a quietly complex picture of the decimation of industry across whole swathes of the superpower. It's based on the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, exposing the trend of nomadic older workers scouring the country in search of work. Director Chloé Zhao (The Rider) employs magnificent sensitivity as she charts the challenges, whilst finding plenty to admire in a life without limits.
Frances McDormand plays Fern; a sixtysomething former resident of Empire, Nevada, she's forced to move from this company-turned-ghost-town following the shutdown of its gypsum mine and death of her husband, something she is clearly still devastated by. Living out of her proudly personalised van, Fern travels the American Midwest bouncing from one temporary employment gig to the next, including over the festive period at a vast Amazon warehouse. Although she is pitied by her estranged family ('I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless,' she tells her concerned niece when they bump into one another), Fern finds a sense of community with her fellow nomads, and shows good humour and grit.
McDormand turns in one of the performances of her career; she's unflashy and consistently affecting as a resilient, stubborn and remarkable woman. This double Oscar-winning dynamo is flanked largely by non-professionals, including real-life nomads Linda May and Bob Wells, adding essential authenticity, though the film finds a nice role for David Strathairn too. The return to nomadic ways is clearly a phenomenon born of societal neglect but Zhao sees the beauty in it. Featuring glorious lensing by Joshua James Richards, the film is rich with love for the land and those who choose to connect with it. Full of heart-breaking details as it highlights both the sadness and serenity of a lonesome existence, Nomadland is a triumph.
Screened on Fri 16 and Sat 17 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020. Available to stream on Disney+ from Fri 30 Apr 2021, and in cinemas from Mon 17 May.