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Laramie Movie Scope: Nomadland

A hyperrealistic, road movie

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 29, 2020 – This unique road movie is a drama (based on the 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder). It hews but a hairsbreadth from reality, achieving a documentary feel. I wondered about this remarkable hyperrealism all the way through this movie, wondering how this was achieved. So naturally, I did some research afterward to find out.

Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) stars as as Fern, a widow forced to move from her home when the gypsum factory in Empire, Nevada closes down and the town is abandoned in 2011 due to the Great Recession of the late aughts.

Fern becomes a modern day nomad, living in a van, traveling around the country, working seasonal jobs at places like Amazon fulfillment centers, agricultural harvest jobs and seasonal tourism jobs.

Fern gets along with people and makes friends along the way. Some of them offer her a place to stay, but she is fiercely independent and refuses to stay in one place very long. Of the many people Fern meets during her travels, one of the most remarkable is Bob Wells (playing himself). Wells is a nomad who lives in a van, and has become an inspiration to many with his YouTube channel about van living, CheapRVliving.

In a very emotional scene between Fern and Bob Wells, he tells her, “One of the things I like most about this life is that there is no final goodbye. I've met hundreds of people out here and I don't ever say a final goodbye. I just say, ‘I'll see you down the road,’ and I do, I see them again, and I can be certain in my heart, I'll see you again.”

Wells is the star attraction at his annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, where Fern meets several other van lifers. One woman talks frankly about how she had planned her own suicide before becoming mobile and turning her life around. Another woman, Charlene Swankie (playing herself) talks of her plans to make a final visit to far off Alaska to revisit a place where she experienced one of the happiest moments of her life.

The movie includes a wide variety of people, many of them older, living on fixed incomes plus what they can earn from sporadic jobs on the road. One veteran describes his struggles with PTSD, others talk of bouts of depression.

One of those Fern forms a friendship with is Dave (played by actor David Strathairn of “Good Night and Good Luck”). David and Fern keep seeing each other down the road at places like the 76,000 square foot Wall Drug Store and nearby Badlands National Park in South Dakota during tourist season. Strathairn's real life son, Tay Strathairn of “Lone Star,” also appears in this film, playing James, Dave's son.

Frances McDormand was instrumental in the making of this film, a project she and writer-director Chloé Zhao worked on for two years. Even more remarkable is the fact that Zhao was working on pre-production for a big Marvel superhero movie, “Eternals” (2021) at the same time she was working on this movie.

As you might expect, this was filmed in many locations across the United States, and it features a number of nomads playing themselves. Chloé Zhao did her own editing of this movie and it comes together beautifully. She and McDormand also lived in vans themselves during the filming, as did others on the team.

Part of the secret of the verisimilitude of the film is the way Zhao's assistant, Hannah Peterson, was able to take the real life stories of the nomads and collaborate with them to help create the movie scenes they appear in. Zhao allowed the nomads to choose how they wanted to represent themselves in the movie.

As an evocative portrait of a largely forgotten people living on the margins of the American economy, this film is nearly flawless. Equally, it succeeds as a moving portrait of a woman determined to live much as Henry David Thoreau once did, writing, “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life ... and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Fern puts it this way in the movie: She does not want to spend too much of her life remembering the past, rather than experiencing life in the here and now.

Nomadland is a stunning tour de force for Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand. It seems inevitable that it will win many well-deserved film awards. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2020 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]