A deeply moving motion picture about those who willingly choose to live on the margins of western society, writer-director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland boasts one of the best leading performances of recent memory in a movie that will be hard to top for the title of best film of the year. Zhao’s trademark blurring of the lines between fiction and reality (as seen previously in equally notable efforts Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) reaches perfection here, elevating her adaptation of Jessica Brooder’s non-fiction book into an unshakable, visceral experience.
Frances McDormand gives another career highlight performance as Fern, a woman who’s had her entire life pulled from beneath her. She’s lost her husband to cancer, and the rural Nevada town where she lived has turned almost literally to dust after the local mining operation closed up shop, forcing everyone to leave. Fern gets a beat up, but mostly reliable van and starts living out of it like a modern day nomad, perfectly content with her decision to remain at peace with her perpetual level of discomfort and integrating herself into a growing modern subculture.
McDormand is one of the most naturalistic and committed performers of all time, making her knack for subtlety and dogged determination a perfect fit for Zhao’s process, which blends a handful of trained actors (including David Strathairn as a fellow wanderer with a crush on Fern) and a cast predominantly composed of untrained, everyday people. The story at the heart of Nomadland is more dramatic and engrossing than most fictional tales of surviving below the poverty line, but the documentary conventions being employed here (along with a great score and some of the year’s finest cinematography) give Zhao’s latest a uniquely lived in quality.
But most importantly, Nomadland is as much about the people and stories Fern connects to along the way as it is about the main character. There’s a protagonist trying to lean something about themselves in the harshest of times, but Nomadland is also a loving ode to survival like a modern day adaptation of Thoreau’s Walden. It’s power, enlightenment, and entertainment value can’t be understated.
Nomadland screens at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival again online for a limited time via Bell Digital Cinema starting at 6:00 pm on Saturday, September 12. All online TIFF screenings are geolocked to Canada.