TIFF review: Nomadland is a magnificent American drama

NOMADLAND GP D: Chloé Zhao. U.S. 107 min. Sep 12, 6 pm, Bell Digital Cinema. tiff.net Rating: NNNNN

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is one of the best films you’ll see this year: simple, elegant and beautiful, and built around a truly remarkable performance from Frances McDormand. That’s really all you should need to know; in a perfect world, you’d stop reading this review and just wait to see the movie when you can.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, which is something this movie’s characters know all too well. Nomadland is freely adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, which looked at the phenomenon of working-class Americans of a certain age who’ve reinvented themselves as itinerant workers who travel the American West in vans and RVs, sleeping in parking lots and following the seasonal job market as short-order cooks, carnival mechanics, tour guides at local attractions, packers at Amazon fulfillment centres, and so forth. Some of these people have consciously rejected conventional society; others were forced to adapt after losing a job or a pension or a partner.

McDormand’s Fern has her own reasons for hitting the road in her white panel van, but they’re not too different from everyone else’s. She just wants to live on her own terms, really.

I’ve been a little leery of writer/director Zhao’s films in the past; her preferred method of storytelling is to cast non-professionals as versions of themselves, and place them within a fictional narrative that diverges from their own histories. It worked really well in the observational Songs My Brothers Taught Me, and a little less so in The Rider, where several of Zhao’s actors came off as limited or even confused.

With McDormand occupying the centre of Nomadland, though, it all snaps together. The two-time Oscar winner is great at playing flinty, unyielding characters, but it’s always an act; she’s one of the warmest and most empathetic screen actors of her generation, and what she does in this movie is balance the two. Fern wants nothing more than to keep people at arm’s length – politely, but resolutely – while McDormand has to draw her untrained scene partners into the moment.

Nomadland requires the actor to share the frame with literally dozens of non-professionals over the course of the film – some of whom appear in Bruder’s book, others who just seem to have wandered in from the parking lot next door – and in every single moment, McDormand is utterly, achingly present: listening to them, encouraging them, matching their specific rhythms, all without ever breaking character. It’s a stunning technical performance hidden in plain sight.

Zhao’s eye for casting doesn’t fail her, either. Almost everyone Fern meets in Nomadland, with one crucial exception, is playing a version of themselves – using their own names, doing the things they would ordinarily do in a fictionalized context. The kindness they offer Fern is, we hope, the same kindness they’d offer anyone else who wandered into their world; there’s no aggression, only understanding. People are too old, for the most part, to bother with petty bullshit: when someone’s sick or sad, they respond with gentle concern. On the road, someone explains, you have a way of running into the same people again and again. You might as well care about them.

And slowly, as Fern moves through a world of trailer parks, garages and gas station washrooms, the narrative of Nomadland comes into focus. This is a story about the end of the American dream, but we needn’t interpret that as a negative thing. After all, what happens when a dream ends? You wake up.

Read more TIFF reviews here.


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