Linda Cook review: Wander with beautiful, mournful ‘Nomadland’

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This beautiful, mournful, and always respectful film is a kind of poem – an elegy to a life unfamiliar to many Americans.

“Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand,is one of the finest movies of 2020. Now in wide release, it’s a don’t miss for fans of character studies and true-to-life dramas.

It’s partly based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” Chloé Zhao wrote and directed this look at a broken American dream and the fate that sometimes befalls those who had counted on a comfortable retirement.

This is fiction based on hard truth.

Fern (McDormand) was among those who lived in the area of Empire, Nev., where US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 because the need for sheetrock has dwindled.   

Now without her husband, Fern buys a van, and takes off on the road. She becomes part of a group of seasonal workers who live in an RV park and help pack boxes over the holidays at an Amazon warehouse. They are, in essence, migrants – calling themselves “nomads” – who keep moving on to the next job.

Here’s the most poignant part of the film: Nearly everyone except McDormand and potential love interest Dave (David Strathairn) play themselves.

You’ll meet characters who are, well, characters, including Bob Wells, who has his own Wikipedia page and YouTube channel. He inspires, coaches and encourages people who live in their vehicles and stay on the move.

The people playing themselves tell their real stories in this not-quite-documentary. All have experienced losses and experience some kind of grief.

Many of them are older and feel “put out to pasture” after all their years of working and making homes for themselves and their families.

I’m a member of the Iowa Film Critics Association, which – just days ago – chose this film as the best of 2020. Not surprisingly, we voted Zhao as Best Director, McDormand as Best Actress, and the gorgeous compositions by Ludovico Einaudi for “Nomadland” as Best Score.

It’s a must-see – a movie that still stay with you as roll along down your own life’s path.

4 stars

Rated: R for foul language and adult themes.

Running time: One hour and 47 minutes.

At Palms 10, Muscatine, and streaming on Hulu.

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