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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Nomadland is writer-director Chloé Zhao's intimate drama starring Frances McDormand as Fern, an unemployed widow who joins a growing movement of older adults who live out of cars, vans, and RVs and do seasonal work across the country. It has mature themes about loneliness, financial instability, and restlessness, but it's also uplifting and hopeful. There's a beauty in the traveling and a sense that hard work should be valued, whatever that work might look like. One scene includes nonsexual nudity as Fern bathes in a lake, and in two other brief scenes, she uses either the outdoors or a bucket to relieve herself. The camera doesn't shy away from these personal moments. A few conversations include references to death, suicide, terminal illness, and depression, as well as the inability to live in one place after having a home on wheels/on the road. Families with older teens will have plenty to discuss after seeing the film -- from the nomadic lifestyle to the decline of American factory towns to the appeal of the open road.
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What's the story?
When writer-director Chloé Zhao's NOMADLAND begins, audiences learn that, in 2011, the United States Gypsum Corporation closed its mine in the company town of Empire, Nevada. This decision essentially closed the town, forcing hundreds of families to leave. Fern (Frances McDormand) is a child-free widow who decides to renovate a commercial van into an RV and begin a nomadic lifestyle of living out of her car and taking short-term, seasonal work across the western half of the United States. During a decent-paying gig at an Amazon fulfillment center, Fern meets veteran road nomads like Linda May (playing herself), who encourages Fern to join Cheap RV Living YouTuber Bob Wells' annual Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona. There she learns tips for living on the road, swaps supplies, and befriends even more folks (most playing themselves) who live the nomad lifestyle, including Dave (David Strathairn), who seems smitten with her. Based on Jessica Bruder's nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the drama follows Fern as she travels to various towns doing everything from waitressing to camp hosting to working on a beet farm.
Is it any good?
McDormand gives one of the quietest, most powerful performances of her career as a woman living on and discovering the joys of the road in this affecting, memorable drama. Because it features real members of the "home on wheels" community -- several of whom are the same nomads featured in Bruder's source article and book -- Nomadland has a documentary-like feel, capturing the various bittersweet reasons that these folks have given up staying in one place, retiring on Social Security, and paying oversized mortgages or rents. Joshua James Richards' outstanding cinematography highlights the lush landscapes of every town that Fern temporarily calls home. The American Dream may have failed Fern and her friends, but now they get to experience the natural beauty of the United States, even as it contrasts with the occasionally dirty work they take to have that privilege.
Zhao and McDormand's creative partnership here is remarkable. McDormand, who's also one of the film's producers, is peerless as Fern. It's difficult to imagine almost anyone else in her generation excelling in the part, except for perhaps her old Raising Arizona co-star and friend, Holly Hunter. Ever the character actor, Strathairn is excellent as Dave, who wants to spend as much time by Fern's side as possible. But Fern isn't as interested in romance as she is in friendship, and she'd rather sleep in Vanguard (her white van) than a guest room any day. As she says to a younger friend's well-meaning teen daughter who bumps into her in a store: "I'm not homeless, I'm just houseless -- not the same thing, right." Like Christopher McCandless before his fatal trip to Alaska in Into the Wild, Fern grows fond of her experiences on the road, tramping not in a train but in her van, being part of a community that lives in an unconventional but fulfilling way that allows them to see the vastness of the country on their own terms.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how relatively few movies center on women over 50 or on working-class characters. How does Nomadland depict older gig workers?
What message does the movie share about the nature of work? How does Fern approach paying jobs?
Despite everyone's fierce independence, how do the characters here help and support one another?
- In theaters: January 29, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: April 13, 2021
- Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
- Director: Chloé Zhao
- Studio: Searchlight Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship
- Character strengths: Gratitude, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: some full nudity
- Awards/Honors: Academy Award, Common Sense Selection, Golden Globe
- Last updated: August 11, 2021
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