On the Road: Nomadland

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 09 June 2021 > What's On

Nomadland is a fascinating insight to a largely invisible U.S. community: modern-day nomads not so far removed from the Depression-era migrant workers from John Steinbeck’s novels.

Based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder, it explores a diverse group of often elderly Americans who have decided to reduce their expenses by living in RVs (Recreational Vehicles) or even cars and travelling the country in search or short-term seasonal work. Nomad life has advantages too, in the form of the chance encounters and firm friendships made on the road.

It may seem surprising given the plethora of awards the film has attracted including the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, but director, screenwriter and co-producer Chloé Zhao is as unusual and marginal to the world of Hollywood as her subjects in this film. Setting aside the fact that she’s only the second woman and the first woman of colour to win Best Director, her films up to now have only featured non-professional actors. A strange hybrid of documentary and fiction, she “embedded” herself in, in the case of her first two films, Native American communities on a South Dakota Sioux reservation. There she built her stories from the life around her. The Rider is the semi-biographical story of Brady Jandreau, a talented rodeo rider and horse trainer who had a devastating fall from a horse that meant he was forbidden by doctors from riding.

The process was different for Nomadland. Actor and producer Frances McDormand had acquired the rights to Bruder’s book, for which she had travelled the country and worked incognito alongside the modern nomads. When McDormand saw The Rider, she felt she had found the ideal director. Zhao adapted the book as a screenplay, including nomads who also appeared in the film.

This time, Zhao blended the non-professionals with multi-Oscar-winner McDormand (for Fargo, Mississippi Burning, Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri….) and David Strathairn (Lincoln, Good Night, and Good Luck…)

Director Chloe Zhao and star Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland
Zhao and McDormand (pictured in Fern's van which she baptised Vanguard.)

The film follows Fern (McDormand) as she discovers this new life, which she hasn’t chosen but ultimately embraces. Living in a company town which has died along with the mine that it was built around, Fern is widowed and finds herself so short of income that her only option is to live in her van.

This could seem a challenging prospect but for the character what makes it at first liveable and gradually enjoyable is the company of other nomads. This aspect of the film is drawn from the experience of Bob Wells, who has become somewhat of the guru of modern nomadic life after also finding himself living in an RV after a series of life’s curveballs like divorce and unemployment. Over 12 years, he has nurtured a community through a YouTube channel and an annual gathering, the Rubber Tramp Rendevous. The extract of Nomadland below features Wells philosophising, and the convivial exchanges at the RTR.


Zhao explains that McDormand had not necessarily assumed she would be in the film, but that Zhao felt she needed the actor’s pulling power to attract audiences and remove the obstacle of, “Ageism in this country, a prejudice against stories about older people and people on the periphery of society.” This is probably the aspect of the film that makes it feel most fresh: an insight into lives which are rarely put under the Hollywood spotlight.

It is also a hymn to the American West and wilderness. Again, Zhao, born in China, educated in England, brings out a beauty in American life that Americans have perhaps forgotten how to see.

Fern (McDormand) and Dave (Strathairn) eating al fresco in a breathtaking landscape.

For McDormand fans, look out for her in the autumn in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch, in competition at Cannes. And for her next trick, Zhao is trying her hand at the Marvel universe with Eternals, due out in November.

On general release 9 June 2021

Coming very soon: a ready-to-use resource on the film to use with your students, a great addition to Shine Bright LLCER File 7 On the Road or File 19 Modern Western.

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