“Just like my dad used to say, ‘What’s remembered, lives.’ I maybe spent too much of my life just remembering.”Fern
Straddling an inchoate space between documentary and fiction, Nomadland explores those who have adopted a nomadic lifestyle travelling around the USA, living in vehicles and picking up work as they go. Powerful, understated performances from Frances McDormand and David Straithairn provide a narrative arc, but most of the characters with whom Fern interacts are real-life nomads playing fictionalised versions of themselves. This provides not just verisimilitude but palpable poignancy to the discussions about the reasons they found themselves in this lifestyle — they are typically older people, unattractive to the job market, but also dealing with grief that perhaps prevents them from laying down new roots. Zhao’s approach to her subjects is gentle and without judgment, a lingering camera that searches for poetry in simplicity and trusts the viewer’s curiosity to understand this way of living. There are beautiful American landscapes but this is not a travelogue and the people are always the focus over the places. Nomadland is a work that feels necessary for its time in the same way as Up In The Air did during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis (with parallels in their rootless protagonists). This is slower and more ephemeral, with limited plot, but its ideas will linger with those who engage.