(director/writer: Chloé Zhao; screenwriter: based on the book by Jessica Bruder; cinematographer: Joshua James Richards; editor: Chloé Zhao; music: Ludovico Einaudi; cast: Frances McDormand (Fern), David Strathairn (Dave), Linda May (Self), Charlene Swankie (Self), Bob Wells (Self), Derek Endres (Derek), Melissa Smith (Dolly); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao; Searchlight Pictures; 2020)
“Frances McDormand stars alongside a cast of real-life nomads.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Beijing-born, NYU-trained, writer-director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”/”Songs My Brother Taught Me”), creates this inspired fiction work of survival on the open road, that is filmed like a documentary. It’s based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland. Frances McDormand stars alongside a cast of real-life nomads.
In 2011, the fictitious widowed Fern (Frances McDormand), with no children, is a 60ish Nevada widow who lost her house when the gypsum mine closed after 88 years and the town of Empire became a ghost town. The former residents scattered in all directions. Fern now travels (and lives) in her run-down white van, which needs costly repairs.
Fern picks up part-time Christmas work at an Amazon (the big corporation) fulfillment center. In the desert haven of RTR (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous) in Quartzite, Ariz., she meets for support the itinerant bearded mellow nomad Bob Wells (self). There’s also fellow travelers Charlene Swankie (self) and Linda May (real-life nomad and mentor), and others like Derek (Derek Endres).
Becoming a reluctant adventurer, Fern is too poor to retire, as she veers from job to job. The former English teacher who bumps into one of her old students on the road (“Still doing that van thing?” the kid’s mother asks), Fern understands her struggle, and has no need to explain things when visiting her estranged comfortable-living sister (Melissa Smith).
Fern later meets the divorced dad Dave (David Strathairn, only other actor in the movie), a former drifter, at the RTR, and is tempted by a romance, but parts before becoming serious.
We follow Fern as she continually looks for short-term work and meets eccentrics and nomads along the way, as she tries to get on with her adventurous life. But her situation never gets resolved, as she in the third act moving onto Wall, South Dakota (heading for a national park in the Badlands), for the next part of her heartbreaking life journey. Though gaining freedom from society by not conforming, there’s still pressure being an outsider. Life for her is continually learning how to deal with suffering and loneliness while barely surviving.
A restrained naturalist realistic performance by McDormand as a complex person reacting to the angst over capitalism, might be her best yet.
REVIEWED ON 9/18/2020 GRADE: B+