‘Nomadland,’ Chloe Zhao’s Heavily-Tipped Drama : NPR

Chloe Zhao’s story of a widow (played by Frances McDormand) who only lives in her van after the great recession is considered the front runner at this year’s Academy Awards.


According to Oddsmakers, the film to beat at this year’s Academy Awards is the real-life drama “Nomadland”. Critic Bob Mondello says it’s a film festival favorite. That opens today in theaters and on Hulu.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: After Fern lost her job, she says goodbye to Empire, Nevada while she still has the resources to get out. She has cut her hair short, piled all of her belongings in her white van, and is picking up some last-minute items at a store when she runs into a friend’s daughter.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) My mom said you were homeless. Is that true?

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (as fern) No, I’m not homeless. I’m just without a house. Not the same, is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as character) No.

MCDORMAND: (as fern) Don’t you worry about me. I am fine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 1: (as a character) OK.

MONDELLO: And as played by Frances McDormand, she seems fine, at least when she goes on an odyssey through the American West and takes up work in an Amazon warehouse, a roadside kitchen, or a trailer park. Oh, she’s occasionally thrown into a mechanical breakdown that costs almost as much to repair as her van is worth.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR # 2: (as character) I would probably recommend taking this money and putting it in another vehicle.

MCDORMAND: (as a fern) No. I can not do that. I can’t do this – you see? – Because – all right. I’ve spent a lot of time and money building the inside out and a lot of people don’t understand the value of it. But we can’t – I live there. It is my home

MONDELLO: Fortunately there are others who offer support, people who don’t have a permanent address either, like Linda May (60), who encourages Fern to check out RTR, a kind of boot camp for novice nomads.


MCDORMAND: (as fern) What does RTR stand for?

LINDA MAI: (as herself) Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. It’s in Quartzsite, Arizona, out in the …

MONDELLO: Fern initially says no, but eventually finds a whole support system in the desert, a nomad community.


MCDORMAND: (as a fern) What is it?

DAVID STRATHAIRN: (as Dave) That’s vegan.

MCDORMAND: (as a fern) No, I’m a carnivore.

MONDELLO: The filmmaker Chloe Zhao combines fact and fiction here. She surrounds McDormand and several other actors – including David Strathairn, who served there – with some of the truly homeless people featured in Jessica Brother’s nonfiction book “Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century.” Linda May, who suggested this real boot camp, is one of those real people.


MAI: (as herself) I went online to see my Social Security benefits. It was called $ 550. Fern, I had worked all my life.

MONDELLO: Another is 74-year-old swankie who is battling terminal cancer, offering remote hands-on lessons for life and memories of kayaking, riverside moose and pelicans above.


SWANKIE: (as herself) come around the bend, was a cliff and find hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff and the swallows fly around and reflect in the water so it looks like i am flying with the swallows and they’re below me and above me and all around me. And the little babies hatch out and eggshells fall out of the nest, land on the water and float on the water, those little white shells. It was like – it was just so great. I felt I had done enough. My life was complete. If I died right now, I would be perfectly fine.

MONDELLO: The filmmaker combines that kind of eloquence with stunning cinematography, trailer camp sunrises that require description, and a simple conversation about resilience in a community that had to learn to be its own safety net. “Nomadland” is a chronicle of the Great Recession that plays like a calm, reflective, real-life “grape of wrath” with McDormand’s Fern as his understated Tom Joad – strong, determined, haunted. I am Bob Mondello.


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