Nomadland: Film Review


Nomadland has been on a winning streak ever since its debut at the Venice Film Festival and TIFF in September and it had been the Oscars frontrunner for months, so it was no surprise that it took home the Best Picture prize on Sunday.

The film stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a widow in her sixties who finds a new life on the road as a nomad, moving from place to place finding work in her van, after she loses her job and home as a result of the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada shutting down in 2011, leaving the town to become abandoned. She travels around the American West picking up seasonal or casual work, befriending fellow nomads and learning about her new way of life.

Nomadland is a character study about a van-dweller in one year of her life – her seasonal job at Amazon over the Christmas holidays essentially serves as bookends of the story. Admittedly, there’s not a great deal in the way of plot, but that doesn’t matter because Chloe Zhao has crafted such a slow, moving, intimate and deeply human portrait of transient people that you can’t help but get invested in Fern and her fellow nomads. It opened my eyes to a completely different way of life and felt super realistic as if it was a documentary or structured reality piece.

Zhao wrote the screenplay based on journalist Jessica Bruder‘s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century and spent weeks travelling around in a van meeting nomads, including some of those who Bruder interviewed for her book. She cast real-life van-dwellers Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells to play fictionalised versions of themselves in the movie, sticking to her tradition of hiring non-professional actors, and they help Fern; giving her advice on job opportunities, what campgrounds to use, and how to look after her van. It doesn’t seem like the nomads are “acting” or putting on a performance and they add the film’s realism and have a significant hand in making the movie as good as it is.

McDormand, who brought Bruder’s book to Zhao, immersed herself in the nomad community and blends in with the non-professionals so well. Fern always insists that she’s doing fine despite the cold, solitude, lack of work, or van repairs she needs to pay for, but you can tell she’s exhausted and still mourning the loss of her husband and her town and putting a brave face on it. She is forced to weather a lot without the comfort of a home to retreat to. McDormand can always be relied upon to bring her A-game and Nomadland is no exception, and I’m thrilled she won the Best Actress Oscar.

Outside of the non-professionals, there’s David Strathairn as Dave, a fellow nomad Fern befriends along the road and becomes a bigger presence in her life as the year progresses. I thought he gave a gentle and considered performance.

I was happy that Zhao won the Best Director Oscar – because she’s female but also because she’s a unique and exciting filmmaker – and that the movie took home three awards overall, but it’s a shame it didn’t win Best Cinematography because Joshua James Richards‘ work here is stunning. Just look at the still above! There’s so many beautiful shots of sunsets and desert landscapes, memorising tracking shots, and intimate close-ups of characters.

Nomadland wasn’t my favourite of the Best Picture nominees and was a bit too slow for my tastes but it definitely deserves a watch for the performances, the cinematography, and for the moving story it tells.

Streaming on Star on Disney+ on Friday 30th April and in cinemas on 17th May

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Songs My Brother Taught Me: Film Review

Songs My Brother Taught Me

Director Chloe Zhao has become a big name thanks to her latest movie Nomadland, its impressive award-winning circuit at the film festivals, and her history-making Best Director Oscar nomination, which I’m confident she’s going to win. Thanks to Nomadland’s success, her feature directorial debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me, is finally getting a proper UK release.

The drama, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival all the way back in 2015, is set in Wounded Knee, a hamlet and creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, and follows Lakota boy Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his little sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) as their lives are turned upside down by the death of their absentee father. His death prompts Johnny, who makes his money by selling alcohol, to decide to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who is about to become a student at UCLA.

Like most of Zhao’s films, Songs My Brother Taught Me uses non-professional actors and this helps add a layer of realism to events and makes you feel like you’re witnessing a slice of their lives. To be clear, it’s not a documentary and the story is fictional but it feels so realistic. You become immersed in the small community and the family (their father had many other children) and feel like you’re bearing witness to intimate, private real-life moments. St. John is a terrific actor and you can’t help but feel sorry for her as the hurt about her brother leaving is painted plainly across her face, while Reddy does well portraying the conflict and anguish within Johnny.

It’s slow-moving and it took a while for me get into it but my patience was paid off by the performances and the satisfying third act. Joshua James Richards, who is currently nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on Nomadland, served as DP on this movie and you can tell as there are so many gorgeous landscape shots in a similar vein to that film.

It was so nice to watch Songs My Brothers Taught Me and think of how far Zhao has come in the space of only six years – and rightly so.

Available on MUBI from Friday 9th April

Rating: 4 out of 5.