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Community Perspective: Nomadland – A Review

A contributed perspectives piece by Tom Arthur

Nomadland, now showing on HULU,has swept most major critics’ awards after its premier at the Venice Film Festival last September and is a frontrunner for “Leading Actress” and “Best Director” Academy Awards. Critics for The New Yorker, British Guardian, Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter, NPR and other major outlets all give it splendid reviews.

The film is based on writer, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 best-selling book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Upon reading the book, actress Frances McDormand immediately optioned it and contacted Chloe Zhao, a young Beijing-born filmmaker whose films set in the American west, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015 and The Rider  (2017), have won recent critical acclaim. 

A notable feature of this work has been Zhao’s use of non-actors in major roles, repeated in Nomadland, the film. During the four-month shooting period, McDormand, Zhao, professional actors and a skeleton crew lived out of vans with amateurs who play fictionalized versions of themselves as they appear in the book.

McDormand portrays an unemployed widow who joins older adults who live out of cars, vans, and RVs supporting themselves with low-paying seasonal work, a recent and growing phenomenon. The film follows her development from housewife in Empire, South Dakota a real place, to contented life on the road. 

The narrative in Nomadland the film,is fictional but the Empire story is rooted in truth. United States Gypsum operated a mine six miles from the company town of Empire from 1948 to 2011, when an abrupt shutdown resulted in the townspeople losing their livelihoods and homes. 

There are many moments in the Bruder book when social injustice becomes the focus, reaching a climax when a character accuses minimum wage employers like Amazon of being “the biggest slave owners in the world.” This is strong stuff of which there is scarcely a whiff in the movie.

The success of Nomandland, the film, owes less to sociological observations than to Zhao’s understated script combined with McDormand’s intense listening to, and thus validating, the stories of her fellow players, amateurs and professionals alike. 

It is these intimate scenes especially that make Nomadland the film such a masterful work of art.

Tom Arthur is a retired JMU teacher of acting. He has eight grandchildren.

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