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Review: Frances McDormand soars to new heights in beautiful 'Nomadland'

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures


Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” is a beautifully raw and compassionate tale about searching for soul in America’s heartland. Populated with real individuals (not actors) and an Oscar worthy take from the queen of cinema: Frances McDormand, Zhao has concocted a small slice of film heaven, complete with small intricacies about finding yourself in unexpected ways. 

“Nomadland” documents one of the fastest growing lifestyles of the past decade where Baby Boomers - whose economic stability hit a wall during the 2008 financial crisis - can’t afford the luxury of retirement, but can’t afford to work either. Stricken with poverty and the inability to pay for a home, they become nomads, a squad of individuals who traverse the country in their camper vans in which they live, looking for seasonal work at restaurants, campgrounds, or, in this films case, a giant Amazon packing facility in Nevada. 

Despite the instability that comes with this lifestyle, Zhao shows us the peaceful, somber, sides of it too: Gorgeous sunsets, cherished monuments, and the camaraderie of friendship. To us, that might not seem like a life worth living, but take away all of our mindless possessions and you’ll find the American terrain of freedom in your own backyard. 

As for Fern (McDormand), a widow and former teacher whose small town was decimated after the closure of their biggest factory, she throws all her possessions into her ratty van dubbed “Vanguard” and sets sail. Along the way, she strikes up connections with real people (all nomads) who have remarkable presence on screen. McDormand, acting as a conduit between these people’s real lives and the fictional one laid out for her, comes into contact with fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) who has a crush on her.

The relationship provides some form of consistency for Zhao, anchoring things with their companionship though it never reaches the dramatic heights you want it too, undermining the independence Fern is so desperately clinging too. But McDormand is quite the marvel whose brilliant character study of grief allots audiences something to root for. It’s as honest a portrayal anyone could ask for in a year plagued with uncertainty, which in true nomad fashion feels right at home. 

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards captures the roaring elegance of the midwest, painting the backdrop of what feels like a deserted planet with miles upon miles of isolated wilderness. The Dakota’s look like a post-apocalyptic playground with glimmers of hope that spring up when you least expect it. The nomads usually find work and do their best to achieve the minor joys in life. At least they have each other, and their livelihood, though far from perfect, fits them squarely. 

“Nomadland” asks us if we can say the same.

Grade: B+ 

NOMADLAND premiered as one of the main slate selections at the New York Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it in theaters starting December 4th. 


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