Released 2020. Director: Chloe Zhao
GRANDPARENTS LIVING IN VANS AND RVs, CROSSING THE AMERICAN WEST looking for seasonal work to get by. This is the backdrop of Chloe Zhao’s achingly empathetic movie based on the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder.
These communities of nomads have chosen to abandon a fixed address for a different kind of life. Some do it by choice, others by necessity in particular after losing their homes and savings in the recession of 2008. Whatever circumstances have led them to live life on the road, Nomadland shows us a moving tableau of resilience, courage and sheer survivalist drive. Most of the nomads are past retirement age, some in their 80s, and their passion for life – on their own terms – is stark and unyielding.
Adapting from a work of non-fiction, Zhao has created a fictional character named Fern to guide us through the sprawling landscape of the nomads, as well as a sobering glimpse into their lives.
Fern and her husband lived in the town called Empire, Nevada, a town supported almost entirely by one industry. When the US Gypsum closed in 2011, the town’s economy collapsed and its population was forced to move. After the death of Fern’s husband, she packs up and takes on an itinerant lifestyle. By then the town is deserted, even the postcode is discontinued.
Fern finds temporary work at an Amazon warehouse under the CamperForce program for RV dwellers and “disadvantaged” people. During off seasons, she drives elsewhere for work, as a campsite host, toilet cleaner, fast-food cook, or even sorting rocks.
Compared with the other nomads Fern is a baby – she’s only in her 60s and a novice. This is a very caring, supportive community and Zhao takes every opportunity to show us the camaraderie and fellowship. It’s a different kind of aged-care facility, one might say, where the residents earn money through employment and take care of absolutely every aspect of their lives, down to the disposal of their bodily waste and fixing vehicle problems.
Apart from Frances McDormand, who gives a stoic, compassionate performance as Fern, and David Strathairn as Dave, a fellow nomad with feelings for Fern, the rest of the ‘cast’ are non-professionals and real-life nomads. Some of the scenes are ad-libbed, adding to the authenticity and docu-drama feel.
Zhao has retained the same cinematographer Joshua James Richards in all three of her movies so far and the same lyrical quality returns in capturing the changing light, intimate domesticity and the way the camera observes its subjects with patience and stillness. The panoramic swathe of evening sky in the desert at once reflects the mood and the pervading loneliness that is unspoken among the nomads. These images convey a sense of nature’s grandeur against the fragility of life.
The classic American landscape invokes the romanticism of life on the open road versus the harsh reality of those on the fringe of society. Senior citizens who cannot afford to retire put themselves in manual labour, some of which are exploitative (which is an aspect not addressed in this movie).
Melancholic at times, Nomadland is nevertheless clear in its rejection of misery or hopelessness. As Fern explains to a young woman she used to mentor that she’s not homeless – she’s houseless – and they’re not the same. A film of great poetic beauty about loss, aging, independence, being left behind and the need to be unshackled from an anchor point, reflected in one woman’s journey of discovery.
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