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USA 2020
Directed by
ChloƩ Zhao
108 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis:  Fern (Frances McDormand) lives out of her van and follows a series of itinerant jobs.

It is no doubt instructive that the 2020 Best Actor Oscars went to Anthony Hopkins for playing an octogenarian succumbing to dementia and Frances McDormand for her portrayal of a homeless (or as Fern puts it, houseless”) woman in her sixties meandering around West and South-West America. It is as if after four years of President Trump America is thirsting for empathy and solidarity even  just some simple humanity in their lives. In this respect Chloé Zhao’s remarkable film is a wonderful effort (she also picked up the Best Director Oscar and with co-producer McDormand a Best Film Oscar) albeit one that will leave you more than a little saddened .

Bridging the divide between documentary and drama the strength of Nomadland is its unforced realism structured by Fern’s perambulatory journey as in her beloved van she follows the seasons over the course of a year. The film is a largely observational account of her and her fellow nomads' criss-crossing daily lives. Unlike the equivalent phenomenon here in Australia where they are known as “grey” nomads this is not a lifestyle choice but rather the result of economic necessity. In Fern’s case she has lost both her job and her husband and Empire, the inappropriately named company town in Nevada in which they lived, has effectively vanished from the map (its postcode was discontinued shortly after the company closed down). And so she has turned her back on all that and taken to the road.

Ably abetted by Joshua James Richards' impressive but unshowy cinematography and an evocative score of largely piano and cello arrangements of the music of Ludovico Einaudi, Zhao builds a moving portrait of a brave woman following her dharma without regret or sentimentality. McDormand, the very antithesis of Hollywood glamour, gives an unerring performance. Other than David Strathairn as Dave, a fellow traveller, the rest of the cast are largely non-professionals playing versions themselves.   

Zhao’s directorial shaping of this material (she also edited the film) is flawless and the emotional pitch of the film is perfect. Ms McDormand who had optioned the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder on which the film is based and brought the project to Zhao must have been very pleased.




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