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Nomadland - Film Review

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by Jenny Esots (subscribe)
A freelance writer and traveller who likes to explore the spiritual, literary and hidden gems of Adelaide and beyond.
Published January 9th 2021
See you down the road
Nomadland presents a portrait of the lives of modern-day nomads on the road across the US. As such, it is a hybrid form of film storytelling and documentary. Many of the characters are played by the real person on whom they are based. The film opens up with wide panoramic landscapes and slowly builds up a picture of the nomadic life. The film is based on Jessica Bruder's book of the same name, who spent time researching and writing the nomad stories.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Frances McDormand in Nomadland

Frances McDormand commands the screen with her stripped back vulnerability and no-vanity appearance. She plays the lead character, Fern, a 61-year-old widow, whose life has been turned upside down after the gypsum-mining town she called home for most of her adult life is closed. The township of Empire, Nevada was not only closed but erased from the map and its postcode ceased to exist. During the film, Fern returns to the empty township and it is clear she is still grieving the loss of her home. Fern is also mourning the loss of her husband and her grief remains raw. The film follows her as she begins to adapt to life on the road in a battered van and the diverse people she encounters.


The documentary angle delves into the impoverished life of the nomads many of whom are well over 60 and work in menial jobs to make ends meet. Fern meets Linda May, (one of the people interviewed in Jessica Bruder's book, on which the film is based). When Fern finds seasonal work at the Amazon factory, Linda tells her about an annual gathering in Quartzite, Arizona, run by self-sufficient nomad philosopher-guru Bob Wells. The construct is one of people helping each other to survive by sharing their resources and stories.

Filming in progress - Nomadland
Filming in progress - Nomadland

The nomadic life is a restless existence in which fragile friendships are formed. Fern meets Dave (an understated but charming David Strathairn) and it seems the two strangers find a kindred spirit in each other. The narrative stops and starts as the two lonely people connect. While the dialogue in the film is limited, director Chole Zhao expects the audience to fill in the gaps. Zhao is committed to taking an unflinching look at the nomadic life in the US. It never veers into sentimentality or sensationalism and is coupled with a moving soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi.


As the film tracks through from place to place, the audience becomes accustomed to farewelling various characters, however, quite often, there is no formal goodbye, just a series of departures and new arrivals. There are overarching themes of grief and loss, ageism and poverty, materialism and sustainability, a sense of place and an extended treatise on loneliness. The nomads are seen as having a lack of connection to the routines of the commercial world and the permanence of owning real estate, many are seen as retreating from sadness and losses in their lives. Throughout it all, the characters are seen as humble battlers (to use an Australian expression), making the best of things. Theirs is a community of cautious generosity.

For some filmgoers, the film's scenario will be too raw, even with the consummate acting skill of Frances McDormand at the helm. The intention is never to glamourise this nomadic life. The format of a semi-fictional documentary of this marginalised community is always grounded in the ordinary moments of life that big-budget films seek to bypass. The audience is given the no-frills approach from the very beginning, as in the opening scenes we see Fern squatting while urinating in a desolate landscape while out travelling the road. The moody landscapes and real-life nomadic existence are captured by Joshua James Richards' evocative photography.

Nomadland provides a window into the cautious generosity of the nomadic spirit. It is worth seeing for the close-up honesty of Frances McDormand's performance alone. Nomadland is always authentic, raw and real and well on its way to winning a host of deserved awards.

Screening nationally in previews and on full release in March 2021.

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Why? On the road again
When: Screening nationally in previews and on full release in March 2021
Where: All good cinemas
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by Supi Ghansham on 31/12/2020
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