London Film Festival 2020: NOMADLAND

Here, at the tail end of the London Film Festival, comes a frankly enthralling drama bursting with humanity; simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking. In some alchemical way, Chloe Zhao‘s Nomadland manages to capture the spirit of a broken system and the lost souls who fall between the cracks using natural performances from non-actors and an amazing turn from Frances McDormand. It’s a wonderful achievement and a beautiful testament to the American spirit.

Surviving America

Inspired by the 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, written by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland centres on the boomers of the 60s generation: once affluent and on top of the world, now suffering from the devastating effects of the 2008 financial crash. At the beginning, we’re informed of the fate of the town of Empire, Nevada. Once a thriving mining town populated mostly by the workers of U.S. Gypsum, it has been decimated by the recession and layoffs. The population, once totalling around 750 people, fled once the work dried up. Subsequently, the town’s ZIP code was discontinued. It’s a stark reality facing so many in post-recession America; once part of the revered middle-class now staring down the barrel of poverty and unable to afford their own homes.

London Film Festival 2020: NOMADLAND
source: London Film Festival

Fern (Frances McDormand) is one of these people. Once living in the town of Empire, she was forced to give up her life when her husband passed away and now lives out of her beloved van, travelling across the plains of America. She is a nomad, part of a semi-society of wanderers who travel from state to state, picking up various jobs where they can and moving on when the time is right. Fern works in an Amazon warehouse during the holiday season, a restaurant during the offseason, and as a fairground helper when she gets the chance. The jobs are varied and unstable, but the community around these jobs is consistent. On her travels Fern meets the same people she comes to call friends. People like Dave, Angela, and Swankie. They become her defacto family, teasing out her history during campfire hangouts and the annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, held by Bob Wells, a real-life nomad here playing a fictionalised version of himself.

London Film Festival 2020: NOMADLAND
source: London Film Festival

In fact, almost everyone here save from Fern and Dave (played by David Strathairn) is a real-life nomad. Zhao continues her penchant for semi-doc authenticity, starting with 2017’s The Rider, by placing Fern in-amongst this real community and allowing those people the chance to be themselves. It imbues Nomadland with a phenomenal sense of heart and pathos. The stories we hear, by and large, are real stories. The people we meet are real people. The sense is that this is not a movie, this is a window into a living, breathing world, inhabited by people with a rich tapestry of history. It’s beguiling to watch Fern scrub bathrooms covered in human faeces, or move about in her worn-out, ready-for-the-scrapheap van and realise there is a spirituality in this life, a serenity that comes from basic living. Fern is refreshingly candid about her circumstance. She is neither self-pitying nor bitter; she is simply trying to get by. The closest we come to an insight into her character – and the closest thing to a plot – involves her burgeoning relationship with Dave, who clearly has feelings for her. She keeps Dave at arm’s length for the most part, and we see in her a reluctance to open herself to anyone again. Her circumstances have hardened her, but she refuses to give in. She simply continues on.

Compassion of Nomads

McDormand is wonderful here. Cast perfectly as Fern, she is simultaneously sweet-natured and standoffish, subtle, and nuanced. She is the emotional centre of the story and the entry point into everyone else’s. Her existence anchors the visual, dream-like poetry of Nomadland, which – much like its protagonists – drifts from moment to moment, never settling into anything resembling a narrative or structure. It is a masterful performance full of little ticks that add up to a fully realised character, so much so that Fern feels like just another of the non-actors that Zhao somehow got an incredibly natural performance out of. Speaking of which, the decision to cast non-actors was an inspired one. Zhao somehow elicits a stunning naturalism from these nomads, who often speak of their own lives with a wistful edge. Each story we hear is treated with compassion and empathy. There is no redemption arc here, no last-minute plot device to save the day.

London Film Festival 2020: NOMADLAND
source: London Film Festival

The people we meet are matched by the landscape we find them in. Zhao, alongside cinematographer Joshua James Richards, creates a vast canvas of the American heartlands, shot mostly as the last embers of sunlight are dying out. Quite aside from the visual cinematography is the way Nomadland flows together. Given its lack of narrative structure, and how often scenes languidly stretch out without any real purpose, it’s surprising to note how engrossing it really is from moment to moment. It’s perhaps because of the lyricism with which Zhao seems to move from scene to scene, effectively making the whole endeavour feel like an orchestral composition, building up slowly bit by bit.


There’s probably going to be quite a few different takes on Nomadland. It could be interpreted a number of ways. It’s partly an examination of loss and grief, and how one dissolves from society during these times, isolating themselves from everyone. It could also be seen as a paean to the spirit of community; in spite of everything they’d undergone, the nomads find themselves with a makeshift family, and genuinely do everything they can to help each other. Kindness seeps out of every moment. These are genuinely good people trying to do what they can in a harsh world that has been cruel to them. Finally, Nomadland could be seen as a warning against the dangers of capitalism. The idea of profit over people, no matter the cost. Whole industries and communities decimated for the opportunity to make more money. Any way you choose to interpret it, Nomadland flourishes under the direction of Zhao, and bolstered by a brilliant performance from McDormand. It is well worth your time.

Nomadland is one of a few notable films utilising performances from non-actors. Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!

Nomadland will be released in the US on 4th December 2020, and in the UK on 1st January 2021

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