Festivals, Reviews

TIFF 2020: ‘Nomadland’ — A Look into America’s Lesser-known Pioneers

A decade after the Great Recession and amid the economic downfall we are facing during a global pandemic, films tackling the lives affected by these events are sure to come out time and time again. But it’s rare for one to carry emotional weight and affect the viewer.

Chloé Zhao’s adaptation of the book of the same name, Nomadland gives an honest perspective about the lives of the so-called nomads who move from place to place in the American West in search of a job. Fern (Frances McDormand), who recently lost everything after her mining hometown shut down, travels with her trusty old van she calls Vanguard, going wherever jobs are. In her journey, she meets fellow nomads in the same situation as her, and even though she forms a bond with them she keeps caution and distance. Throughout the film, we learn more about her circumstances and her past life before the fall of Empire, Nevada, and how she grieves her losses.

To someone who was too young and oblivious to even be aware of the 2008 recession, finding out that there were people forced to live in their RVs and vehicles may be appalling; but to them it was the only way they could survive in a society that has failed them. Fern explicitly explains to the daughter of a friend, “I’m not homeless… I’m just houseless. Not the same thing.” 

What matters in Fern’s journey are the people she meets along the way and her connection with nature. The people she meets in the rubber tramp rendezvous become her mentors for nomad living, and even though she keeps wary of people, these mentors become her friends for life. Fern from time to time takes a break from her part-time and seasonal jobs as she heads for the road, where she encounters the beauty of the American West. She takes it all in and is one with nature.

Zhao gives a realistic lens on what nomads, especially Fern, go through. The way cinematographer Joshua James Richards frames the characters is so engrossing, from the closeups of faces who have been through so much, to the long shot revealing the vast expanse of the American West. There is so much soul put into this film that the viewer will feel a sense of belonging and a closeness to the protagonist as she processes her grief along with the other nomads.

McDormand’s performance is so subtle, giving so little yet so much. You can see how much pain her character tries to keep in. Her co-star David Strathairn’s performance is so charming that you can’t help but swoon over him. The supporting actors are scene stealers, from Linda May who is actually a nomad herself, to Swankie. They provide a support system to Fern and they impart such a delight to Fern’s journey as a nomad.

Watching the film, it is unquestionable that the amazing score is from none other than the amazing Ludovico Einaudi. His stirring piano accompaniment gives the film such life that carries through and amplifies what the protagonist is feeling. 

This is a film to watch out for this awards season, and with the rise of Zhao after her award-winning film The Rider and the upcoming Eternals, this film is proof that she is one of the most important directors of American cinema. There is an obvious passion in her making of the film, as one can feel the warmth and care that was put into every aspect of it.

Nomadland is a touching look into the life of the present-day nomads as they traverse through the vast American West, dealing with survival and grief. As Fern and many of the nomads go through a lot of physically demanding jobs while moving from place to place in their home vehicles, the film shows the resilience and hope that they hold on to, and the film captures the people and places that affects Fern along the way. 

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