I’ve been doing a week rounding up some of my year’s favourite films that I haven’t yet posted on here, and I know it’s already the new year, but here’s one I saw just this past week that I forgot to post, so I’m doing it now, ahead of my full list of favourites.
By this point director/writer (and editor) Chloé Zhao has built up a pretty solid body of work dealing with the dispossessed in American society. Her previous two features (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) have been sensitive stories of First Nations people, and while this one focuses far more on Frances McDormand, it has the same interest in marginal lives eked out in the kinds of spaces not often seen on the American screen, as she bounces between itinerant work in Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada and other such places with vast horizons and empty space aplenty.
Everyone in the film goes by their own name, even our star (as seen on an ID card she uses in an early shot, though her character uses the nickname Fern), which suggests a strong documentary quality to this tale, and I would believe that everyone we see lives these very lives. There are sad stories and plenty of tears, but these aren’t placed within a framework of anger or misery (though it could easily be spun that way, given that most of the lives we see are largely due to inadequate social welfare protections, and even working for an Amazon warehouse is fairly soft-pedalled given a lot of the journalism that has been built up around that). Instead the film grounds itself in a shared feeling of hope that everyone forges together in these RV parks and desert encampments, that could look like cults but are just communities of like-minded people looking out for themselves. This could easily be the dystopian apocalyptic world of other films, but it’s a disarmingly generous and empathetic take on what such communities might feel like, set amongst people who have embraced their choices and have become determined to find something positive in what others might see as a massive failure of government and society. These lifestyles are hardly going away, but it’s heartening somehow to see people trying to make them work.
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷 (based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder); Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 26 December 2020.