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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 09.28.20] drama

If you do a websearch for #vanlife, you get lots of videos and images of beautiful millennials in gorgeous tiny homes, enviable photos and videos set to upbeat or meditative music and featuring beautiful people doing amazing things in gorgeous locales all the while living out of well-appointed, impeccably clean vans. But the social media version, the edited sunshine and rainbows version of vanlife and the reality of living in a van are two very different things.

Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who, like many nomads, takes up van living in part out of necessity and in part out of choice, though in Fern's case, it's mostly out of necessity. Once upon a time she was happily married, working in a factory and living contently in a factory home on the outskirts of the factory town but with her husband gone, the factory gone and with it her job, Fern finds herself destitute. With few viable options, she buys a van, puts whatever she can into storage and heads out into the world of nomad living, travelling across the country, following Amazon CamperForce jobs and whatever other seasonal work she can get her hands on. It's not a glamorous living but Fern is (mostly) self-sufficient and living independently and on her own terms.

An adaptation of Jessica Bruder's book of the same name, writer/director Chloé Zhao's movie is a lovingly realized exploration of life on the fringes but as is the case with her previous films, most notably 2017's The Rider, Zhao captures the good with the bad. It's not all shitting in a bucket and trudging to your sister's because your van broke down and you can't afford to fix it. Along the way, there are friendships, self-discovery and exploring the vastness and beauty of the country.

McDormand is brilliant as Fern, a quietly strong, fiercely independent woman, unwilling to compromise on her values or beliefs. She's determined to make the best with the cards the world has dealt her. Sometimes that means asking for help though mostly, it means keeping friends at arm's length. As with anything McDormand does, there's an uncomplicated realness to her performance, a depth and heaviness with every look and every movement that points at a hard life.

Peppered throughout Nomadland are a number of memorable appearances, from both talented actors (David Strathairn, excellent as always), and true nomads. The mix makes for a colourful cast of supporting characters and what feel like fresh, sometimes apparently unscripted encounters.

Along the way, Zhao makes quietly damning observations about the state of the country and in-turn, the world. The way that government institutions have failed people like Fern, a hard-working citizen whose livelihood evaporated in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The way big corporations both provide, and don't provide enough for employees. The way society looks at or completely ignores people in Fern's situation with pity, disdain or a mix of both.

Nomadland is a political statement but it's also a beautiful, lovingly realized love-letter to a different way of life. Despite that ups and downs of life on the road, Fern signs up for another year of nomadic living, and as she drives off into the sunset, one can't help but feel sad that this is her only real option but also hopeful that she and others liker her can continue to live life on their own terms.

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