‘Nomadland’ Explores More Than the American West

Zhao’s first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, were both set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and focused on characters played by first-time actors in stories deeply inspired by their own lives. The Rider, in particular, is a staggering work that’s indebted to the stubborn spirit of classic Westerns, but told from the uncommon viewpoint of a Lakota Sioux rodeo star struggling to recover from injury. Nomadland is inspired by real life too: It’s adapted from a nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder about Americans living out of their vans post-2008. This realism is anchored to arresting work from McDormand, who delivers achingly compassionate, rambling monologues, as well as the sharp attitude that won her an Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Though Fern is the fictional center of the movie, her backstory is rooted in reality—she is from Empire, Nevada, which once served as a company town for the United States Gypsum Corporation, before it closed its local mine. An opening title card reveals the toll this shutdown took on the actual community’s livelihoods: The town emptied out so quickly that its zip code was discontinued.

Fern rebuilds an itinerant life from the ashes of that loss and the death of her husband. She pulls seasonal work at a local Amazon warehouse (where Zhao captures fascinating real-life footage), drives from campsite to campsite, and takes advice from fellow unsettled citizens. Zhao revels in the disparate connections that Fern forges, in a community that isn’t based on one location but on a state of existence.

Nomadland is not a particularly romantic movie. Though the cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, captures many a stunning vista on Fern’s travels (he even imitates, at one crucial moment, a famous shot from the classic Western The Searchers), Zhao also sheds light on the less glamorous parts of Fern’s new lifestyle. Personal hygiene, going to the bathroom, and other basic tasks such as doing laundry or staying warm: These are some of the mundane challenges that Fern faces, and Zhao cleverly injects them with life-and-death stakes.

Fern’s struggle to admit her own vulnerability, and her reluctance to delve into the lingering trauma of losing her job and her family, is the real tension of Nomadland, and McDormand plays that fear and sadness perfectly. Fern is not an excessively mean character, but she’s highly guarded, and there’s real drama in watching those barriers crumble over the course of her journey. Nomadland is a work of exploration, and not just across the sprawling American West. Fern is exorcising her darkest demons, which spring from the systemic neglect that has been visited on so many Americans in recent years. The odyssey makes Zhao’s film a transfixing mix of reckoning and catharsis.

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Nomadland wins People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival

Nomadland is the winner of this year’s People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The recession-era road trip drama, starring Frances McDormand, tells the story of a woman travelling the American West alone in her van.

Directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland is already a favourite with critics, and picked up the Golden Lion for best film at Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

But the TIFF People’s Choice win announced Sunday helps solidify its buzz ahead of awards season.

Several previous People’s Choice winners have gone on to pick up the best-picture Oscar, including Green Book12 Years a Slave, and The King’s Speech.

Last year, Jojo Rabbit won the prize before picking up six Academy Awards nominations.

The TIFF People’s Choice honour has usually carried a $15,000 prize, but organizers say no cash prize is attached this year.

Nomadland beat out Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami, which re-imagines a real-life 1964 meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. Her film was the first runner-up.

Canadian filmmaker Tracey Deer’s coming-of-age drama Beans, set around the Oka Crisis, was the second runner-up.

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‘Nomadland’ Wins Top Prize at the Venice Film Festival

“Nomadland,” a film written and directed by Chloé Zhao, won this year’s Golden Lion, the top prize, at the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival.

The drama stars Frances McDormand as a woman living as a nomad across America after the recent recession. It is based on the book by the journalist Jessica Bruder.

The festival, which opened Sept. 2 and closed on Saturday, was the first major international film event since the coronavirus pandemic began. It had strict social distancing measures in place, and visitors were required to wear face masks both indoors and outdoors while on the festival site.

This year, the festival jury chose the Golden Lion winner from a slightly smaller roster of films in the main competition. The lineup lacked the festival’s usual Hollywood blockbusters (last year, Todd Phillips’s “Joker” took home the Golden Lion) and for the first time in a decade an Italian film opened the festival — Daniele Luchetti’s “Lacci,” a marriage drama set in Naples.

Also in competition for the festival’s top prize were Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come,” starring Vanessa Kirby and Casey Affleck, which explores the love between two farmers’ wives in 19th-century America; and “Pieces of a Woman,” a family drama directed by Kornel Mundruczo and starring Shia LaBeouf.

The festival has also made 15 of the films that premiered on the Lido available to stream online, for a fee, until Sept. 22.

At the beginning of the festival, the lifetime achievement award was given to the filmmakers Tilda Swinton and Ann Hui. Accepting her award, Swinton said that to be in “a room with living creatures and a big screen” was “pure joy.”

Aimee Ortiz contributed reporting.

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