Chloé Zhao, USA, 2020
It didn’t cross my mind while I was watching this that it was unusual to have an independent single woman over 60 as the main protagonist in a film. My world is so full of strong older women, it doesn’t seem odd to me. Even my film world includes a few: Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert.
But still, that’s not enough is it, so it’s good to see Frances McDormand joining the ranks of commanding and still-working older actors. In fact, it’s also good to see a piece of art about living unconventionally (think On The Road, Easy Rider) with a woman in the lead role. She pleases herself, lives free, answers to no-one.
It was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in McDormand’s company; she is majestic in this, conveying all the subtle emotions, thoughts, and motivations of an ordinary woman who’s experienced complex situations. She has the most interesting face, as do some of the other nomads we meet.
Based on personal tales documented by journalist Jessica Bruder in her book of the same name, Nomadland follows Fern. There’s not so much focus on narrative, it’s more a slice of life, but this is the backstory: The mining company that created the town where Fern lived for years has closed down. With the work gone, the town dies, then her husband dies, and so the life she’d built is totally decimated. We join her as she begins a new nomad life, following seasonal work and living cosily in a converted transit van.
Friends worry that she is homeless, down and out, struggling. But as she puts it, she’s “houseless” and fine. Dealing with loss but just getting on with it. Learning how to live with her new reality. And it’s this tone of poignancy and wistfulness, yet grit and determination that pervades the film (and is echoed in how it looks – subdued half-light for many shots).
Fern’s life is solitary but not lonely. The sweeping, beautifully shot, immense American landscape only highlights the insignificance of us humans and our little dramas. All we have is sitting round a campfire swapping stories, and these moments are joyous. The sense of community among the nomads – the film uses real people who live like this, not extras – is strong, and an undercurrent of American life that is rarely seen. I found the celebration of those who have chosen to swim against the flow of conventional society and live in a different way really inspirational.
These people reject the “tyranny of the dollar”, but wholeheartedly embrace and respect freedom and individualism. They are open and welcoming (in my experiences travelling the USA by train, this is how most Americans are). There is no pressure on Fern from the community to join in. The only expectations she faces are from her sister, who lives a typical surburban life and wants her around more.
So let’s see how this does in the Oscars (it’s hotly tipped). It’s encouraging to see a mainstream film about people living outside of capitalist norms, deciding to be free and following a different kind of American Dream.