April 24, 2021
Street Date 4/27/21;
Box Office $2.14 million;
Rated ‘R’ for some full nudity.
Stars Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Bob Wells, Linda May, Charlene Swankie, Tay Strathairn.
Director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland gives audiences a gorgeous tour of the American West through the stark lens of the so-called “nomad” movement that popped up after the “Great Recession” of 2008.
The trend involves predominantly older individuals who, after their companies shut down, took to a minimalist, transient lifestyle, driving from city to city in vans and RVs in search of seasonal work to get by.
The film is based on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which was optioned by Frances McDormand, who both co-produces and stars in the film. After being brought on board to direct, Zhao also wrote the screenplay and edited the film, in addition to serving as one of the co-producers as well.
McDormand plays Fern, who has been living in a van since the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, closed in 2011 and the town was largely abandoned. She takes a variety of seasonal jobs, including at an Amazon fulfillment center, and begins to learn about the nomad lifestyle, which she refers to as being “houseless” but not homeless. The film plays almost like a documentary, with Fern as the focal point to bring the audience on the journey. Many of the people Fern encounters in the film are actual nomads, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, who were chronicled in Bruder’s book. Among them is Bob Wells, who acts as sort of the guru of the nomads and leads sermons on the lifestyle where he conveys his economic philosophies while people learn tips on how to survive on the road and keep their vehicles in working order. Through it all, the nomads are often compared to the pioneers of old. The film’s wisftul presentation of the vast landscapes they visit aptly demonstrates why the life might appeal to those engaged in it.
The film isn’t political or preachy, instead presenting the people and their lives as it finds them, and letting viewers come to their own conclusions. Some live the life out of necessity, with nowhere else to turn. Others live it by choice, not wanting to be bogged down by the rote requirements of suburban life. McDormand gives a quiet, unflinching performance as one of the latter, treating the natural wonders of America’s great outdoors as her playground, even when the harsh realities of her circumstances catch up to her.
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The film’s critical success comes at a fortuitous time for Zhao, whose next project is Marvel Studios’ big-budget Eternals, which is already in the can and slated for theaters Nov. 25.
The Nomadland Blu-ray includes a few modest but insightful extras. The 13-and-a-half-minute featurette “The Forgotten America” offers a general making of the film with several interviews with the cast and filmmakers, including Bruder. There’s also 15 minutes of footage from a Q&A with Zhao, McDormand and some of the nomads at the film’s drive-in premiere held Sept. 11, 2020, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., staged as a pop-up adjunct of the canceled Telluride Film Festival.
Finally, there are two deleted scenes totaling three minutes.