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FILM REVIEW: Nomadland – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Chloé Zhao

One of the big London Film Festival premieres is Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland a celebration of living on the road. Available in the closing days of the event, Zhao blends a documentary and narrative style of filmmaking to create a road movie of sorts, one that celebrates the stories of people choosing to live a transitory lifestyle while never forgetting the economic and personal circumstances that set them on the road.

Fern lives in her RV (recreational vehicle), taking a series of temporary jobs while she travels across America. But while enjoying her freedom Fern remains troubled by the death of her husband and the failed mine that closed a whole town, making her reluctant to form a more intimate connection. Along the way she meets a community of fellow travellers living in their vehicles and camping overnight who trade tips, exchange goods and share stories of their experiences.

It is a truism that the people with least to give are often the kindest, and the generosity of spirt and willingness to support one another shines through Zhao’s film. Mixing actors with real people, Zhao creates an authenticity within Nomadland that grounds the story, using talking head style moments around the camp fire. Passing strangers share resources that create a semi-documentary feel within Fern’s fictionalised central perspective.

Like many filmmakers who leave the city, Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards are in love with the landscape of America which is central to the optimistic perspective of Fern’s lifestyle. Beautiful red sunsets across dusty planes, the craggy appeal of the Badlands rock formations, rolling rivers and snowy vistas celebrate the variation in the nomadic lifestyle and a strong almost spiritual connection with the natural world.

Of course, the economic and industrial seep in as Fern takes a series of jobs at places like Amazon, as a camp host and at cafes, as well as medical issues and mechanical failure that create incursions from the outside world. And while there is a loneliness, Fern is rarely alone, surrounded by people parking alongside and individuals she meets again and again, sharing moments that give the film its depth and heart.

You are rarely disappointed in a Frances McDormand performance and once again in Nomadland she creates layers of psychological meaning in her presentation of Fern who resists any kind of lasting commitment to anything except her beloved van. But it is a performance grounded in past trauma that McDormand uses to give Fern a haunted, introspective quality that is empathetic but also creates an emotional wall around the character that emphasises her certain independence.

Zhao is unhurried in her filmmaking, taking time to focus as much on the changing views of rural America as in the exploration of character, so running at 105-minutes occasionally it feels a little too episodic, particularly when it circles back for some overly neat catharsis at the end. But as a vehicle for McDormand’s performance and a celebration of the real people who travel, Nomadland is a textured depiction of life on the road.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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