Review: Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, captures subculture

Nomadland M, 5 stars

In Sally Potter's Orlando, adapted from the Virginia Woolf novel, the title character, has a revelatory moment when she takes a lover in Shelmerdine (Billy Zane). He is a free spirit who challenges her to accept a similar freedom, to travel the world unfettered by position or possession.

Only because I love Orlando so much do I overidentify the parallels between it and Chloe Zhao's Nomadland which follows its hero (Frances McDormand) as she travels the American heartland. Possibly definable as homeless, McDormand's Fern considers herself unburdened by a home.

Fern is one of the army of modern-day pioneers and nomadic folk whose covered wagons are now vans and RVs and, in some lucky cases, enormous Winnebagos with washer-dryers and bathrooms.

American long-form journalist Jessia Bruder spent months living in a campervan researching the book that would become Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

Bruder uncovered (for those folks in California and the eastern states with homes and comfortable jobs who don't need to wait around for presidents to sign stimulus cheque payments) the amazing news that many millions of Americans live not just pay cheque-to-pay cheque but actually dreamed of a pay cheque. They lived in cars and vans and migrated where the jobs, even single-day jobs, could be scrounged.

The folk she described were victims of the Global Financial Crisis, but also failed families and marriages, a collapsed economy, or a system that didn't adequately allow for the unemployed, the retired and the sick. Written about as the downtrodden or the underclass, many wouldn't describe themselves as victims. Many might think of themselves as Shelmerdine, unfettered.

Indie film darling Chloe Zhao met Frances McDormand at a film event and the two vowed to work together. McDormand's film production partner had optioned the book from Bruder and imagined a quasi-documentary following some of the characters from Bruder's book.

McDormand's character Fern didn't exist in Bruder's non-fiction work, she is a construct developed by McDormand and Zhao to excavate the heart of Bruder's work, and to investigate the heart of the modern American nomad subculture.

Nomadland follows Fern from Christmas to Christmas, taking seasonal work in one of Amazon's enormous distribution centres. She makes a return visit to retrieve a few items from a storage unit in the factory township she lived in with her late husband, a town that was so devastated when the major employer closed down that its zip code was decommissioned.

Her season with Amazon over, Fern follows pal Linda May to a desert campground in Arizona where many hundreds of nomad travellers meet, share their stories, and offer support to each other.

Fern meets fellow traveller Dave (David Strathnairn) here, and meets him again later in the year when she and Linda May have jobs as campground managers in the Badlands National Park. An untimely mechanical issue forces Fern to reach out to her monied sister and a series of hardships make her think about following Dave to a stable life with his family in the Pacific Northwest.

Nomadland is one of those cultural moments, like when you saw Jordan Peele's Get Out or listened to the Hamilton cast recording. It won major awards at both Venice and Toronto film festivals this year, and that's not because most of the film industry collapsed under COVID-19, it's because its actually good.

In interviews, Zhao has discussed McDormand's role in the film's production (she is the film's producer while Zhao is writer, director and editor).

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Picture: Supplied

Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Picture: Supplied

Zhao wrote Fern from McDormand's own musing that in her 60s she hoped to leave everything behind and travel the country in an RV.

Zhao and McDormand shot part of the film guerilla-style, living out of their own vans, travelling across the country, shooting scenes to Zhao's script, and involving some of the actual nomadic characters that Bruder wrote about in her book. Fern's pal Linda May (Linda May), the cranky free spirited Swankie (Charlene Swankie) and traveller lifestyle guru Bob (Bob Wells) play versions of themselves and are comfortable on-screen. Strathnairn ropes in his real-life children as his character's family.

McDormand is mesmerising as Fern, and Zhao's camera also mesmerises in landscapes of stunning beauty in the American heartland.

The plot might be light - many minutes go by without dialogue while scenes unfold of sunsets or deserts pans or McDormand doing a jigsaw puzzle with Linda May while they wait for their laundry to finish drying - but the subtext is ripe to choking point.

This story Nomadland is a superb look at subculture first appeared on The Canberra Times.