If they had cast “an unknown” in the main role of Nomadland rather than Frances McDormand , you could comfortably believe this was a fly-on-wall documentary. The “realism” of Nomadland is its biggest strength, as each scene feels authentic and you genuinely believe you are getting a snap-shot of life as a modern day nomad.
This is largely down to the fact that director Chloe Zhao uses real nomads as part of her movie. From the friends of McDomand’s Fern, to the people she meets at each camp and temporary job, through to the seemingly unscripted conversations she has around late night campfires, Nomadland brings the real nomads to the forefront of the movie and you get a true sense of what this life is like.
Its the way that Zhao and McDormand present the authentic, everyday life of a nomad that makes the movie so entertaining. The film covers the cost of creating a van you can live in, the constant travel and complications with parking, washing and finding power, as well as the ever changing jobs that come with the ever changing landscape. It covers all these aspects without forcing drama. It would be easy to find a dangerous situation to put Fern in, or have a blazing row with those that do not agree with her lifestyle choices, or even have her truly question them herself, but that isn’t what this film is about. The drama and focus of the movie is in the absence of drama, its in the more mundane aspects, highlighting that people in America actually live like this.
Although her inclusion does demonstrate that this is a drama after-all, Frances McDormand is convincing as a nomad and fits into the world perfectly: “warts and all.” She has a perfect balance of vulnerability and strength which makes her journey compelling without needing to build fabricated experiences which doesn’t ring true with the rest of the movie.
If the aim of the movie is to highlight an under-exposed culture within America, then it does succeed. The use of the authentic nomads in the scenes, allowing them to explain their troubles, successes and the reasons why they live the lifestyle they do, means that you really feel for the people who are forced to be nomads. Fern’s situation is highlighted early on in the movie and so many others explain their reaons for living out of a van rather than finding comfort in a single home.
While it is certainly a choice for some, it is also a situation borne out of necessity for others and this is where the film doesn’t hit the mark well enough. It highlights the culture and brings deep focus on how these people live, both the positives and negatives, but it doesn’t do enough to expose the under-belly of why these people should live like this at all. We get accounts of people’s reasons for being nomads but never properly look at the larger issues of why so many people have to live a life on the move when society deems life in a single location so much more acceptable.
Overall, Nomadland is a fantastic look at the world of the modern nomad. Frances McDormand holds the movie perfectly, convincingly integrating herself with the many authentic members of the real life nomad culture. The film does well to show what this life is like, both the positives and the negatives, but doesn’t do enough to expose why this lifestyle has to exist in the modern world at all.
Rating – 4.5
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