Director – Chloé Zhao – 2020 – UK – Cert. 12a – 107m
A poor widow drives around the US in her van picking up casual work where she can get it, meeting and making friends with other vandwellers – on VoD, in cinemas from Monday, May 17th
There’s a restlessness about Nomadland. In most films, the characters live in fixed abodes – houses or flats. Perhaps parts of villages, towns or cities. Not so here.
“I’m not homeless”, explains Fern (Frances McDormand) at one point to a daughter of a friend she’s not seen for years and runs into in a hardware store, ” I’m houseless. There’s a difference.” Indeed there is.
Following the rapid economic collapse of Empire, the town where she lived, explained in a throwaway introductory title at the start, and the death of her husband, Fern has taken off in an RV and now moves from place to place, getting paid work where she can find it, meeting people and, frankly, enjoying the freedom this mobile and rootless lifestyle affords her.
The property was originally a non-fiction book by journalist Jessica Bruder who documented the lives of so-called vandwellers living on the road following the US economic depression of 2007-2009. A number of people in the book appear in the film as variations of themselves, part true, part fictional. Linda May befriends Fern while she has a pre-Christmas gig sorting orders at an Amazon warehouse. When Fern returns a year later, Linda May is no longer there. (The first Amazon gig is onscreen quite a while, the second is notable for its brevity.) Charlene Swankie gets Fern he help touch up Charlene’s van with paint, then leaves what’s left over to Fern so Fern can improve the look of her own van, the look of which Swankie describes as “ratty”.
And Bob Wells runs a sort of training camp for vandwellers, somewhere they can come and stay and interface with like-minded people. He’s probably the nearest thing these people have to a mentor or a spiritual advisor. The scene when she revisits and he, she and a bunch of others sit round a campfire, tossing in objects to remember fellow van travellers who have passed and who they will no longer “get to meet down the road” is genuinely moving.
The inclusion of such characters alongside regular actors like McDormand and David Strathairn is indicative of the film’s fluid form. It’s fiction, but as an adaptation of a non-fiction book straddles both narrative fiction and shot-on-the-run documentary. You’re watching actors playing characters, yet you’re also watching real people playing themselves as the actors interact with them. This makes watching the film something of a bizarre experience; you don’t quite know where you are in terms of exactly what you’re watching. In a strange way, given the subject – people who for one reason or another have abandoned the West’s accepted mode of living for an alternative, rootless lifestyle – that’s curiously appropriate.
Strathairn plays another vandweller Dave (again, the character having the given name of the actor blurs the line between documentary and fiction) who after some time onscreen with Fern is visited by his son. Dave leaves to go and live with his son to fulfil his duties as a new grandparent to his son’s newborn. He tries to get Fern to come with him. Or at least visit, which she does. She holds the baby and sneaks down in the night to find Dave and son playing a joyful piano duet. Alone, later, she touches a key producing a single note. She herself doesn’t play, and joining in with the family community is not for her. As she sets of, the visuals are underscored by Ludovico Einaudi’s poignant piano compositions, as if Fern’s head and interior spiritual journey were somehow generating a very different type of piano composition.
She hasn’t really got over the death of her husband which was a large part of the reason she took off from their home in the first place. She describes it as a special place, on the very edge of the town so the backyard had a view of open country with nothing in the way. Finally, she returns there, the house now an empty shell. The view from the backyard remains and she sets off again.
Director Zhao’s realisation of all this on the screen represents a highly original vision. That’s probably why it picked up triple Oscar wins for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress. It’s a piece of work that’s way out there on a limb and therefore worthy of your attention.
Nomadland is out in cinemas and on VoD in the UK from Monday, May 17th. This review was written partly on a mobile phone and partly on a Linux PC, which somehow seems appropriate.
BFI London Film Festival