New York FF 2020: Nomadland

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Chloé Zhao is a rising star behind the camera and the filmmaker continues to amaze us with her third feature film, Nomadland.

In a perfect world, we would be privileged to watch two films directed by Zhao this year.  The other one being a film from Marvel Studios called Eternals.  Perhaps you’ve heard of it?  In any event, Zhao delivers a very different film than The Rider.  However, this one feels bleaker in nature. No matter the difference, the film is gloriously shot.

What would you do if your town suffered an economic collapse?  Fern decides to pack up her bags and drives across the country when the mining town shuts down.  After working for years in Nevada, a new opportunity presents itself.  It may not be what the average person would do but Fern becomes a nomad.  She lives life outside of what people call a normal society.  What we get as a result is a view of the American West that we don’t usually get to see on screen.  It’s such a credit to Zhao’s vision as a filmmaker.

This isn’t the typical road movie.  It’s certainly not Planes, Trains, and Automobiles–the John Hughes picture is the ultimate road movie.  Through Fern’s eyes, we travel through South Dakota, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest.  This is a woman who not only loses her job but is also a widow.  In addition to real-life nomads Linda May and Swankie, Fern develops a close friendship with Dave (David Strathairn).

Behind the camera, Zhao pulls triple duty as director, screenwriter, and editor.  But beyond that, Nomadland makes a bold choice in the casting front.  They could have cast regular actors to portray nomads.  Instead, they go with real-life nomads: Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells.  This really gives the film a sense of authenticity but I can’t be surprised after viewing The Rider in 2018.  Coincidentally, Frances McDormand saw The Rider at Toronto in 2017 and the rest is history.  While Zhao goes big with Marvel in her next turn, I’ll be interested in seeing what happens next for her career.

There are a number of members of the nomad community in the film but it never feels like a documentary.  Not at all.  Frances McDormand and David Strathairn are obviously the two big-name actors in the film.  The filmmakers could easily have cast an unknown in the leading role but they decided against it.  While an unknown actor would have still worked, having both McDormand and Strathairn here should help the film draw some interest.  McDormand should certainly contend for an Oscar especially in the year of the Indies and Streamers.

Nomadland is one of very few films to be selected for the four major fall film festivals.  The film earned top awards at both Venice and Toronto, too.  We’ll see what happens during this long awards season but the combination of Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand deliver a 1-2 punch.

CAST:  Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie

Nomadland holds its New York premiere during the 2020 New York Film Festival in the Main Slate program. Searchlight Pictures will release the film at a later date. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.