Surviving America

Philadelphia Film Festival 2020: Chloé Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’

4 minute read
Another award-worthy performance: Frances McDormand in ‘Nomadland.’ (Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.)
Another award-worthy performance: Frances McDormand in ‘Nomadland.’ (Image courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.)

The very-different-from-usual Philadelphia Film Festival kicked off Friday night with a drive-in screening of Nomadland, at the venue known as the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard. While the exhibition was less than ideal, it's a truly fantastic film, of the sort that would have been a worthy opener in a standard, non-pandemic year.

Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion award, and as of now it's set for theatrical release in December from Searchlight, the Disney subsidiary formerly known as Fox Searchlight. The film is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.

Zhao also made 2017's The Rider, a beautiful little film about a brain-damaged former rodeo star that mostly starred nonprofessional actors. She's already set to direct the Marvel film Eternals, set for release in 2021.

More than “drifters”

Nomadland is a gorgeous film about a little-known subculture: older Americans who, often following economic disaster, embrace a nomadic, camper-based lifestyle. They're the sort of people the movies often dismiss as "drifters," but Nomadland exquisitely explores their humanity.

Nomadland stars two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as Fern, a woman who, after her husband’s death, takes up the nomad lifestyle following the Great Recession, which led her Nevada hometown to collapse virtually overnight. We see Fern traveling through the western United States, getting to know other nomads, and occasionally reconnecting with people from her past life.

Too many left behind

The film is full of beautiful, heartbreaking scenes of older people—most of them, once again, played by nonprofessionals—telling their stories, cut with gorgeous photography of landscapes, thanks to some outstanding work from cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also shot The Rider. The veteran character actor David Strathairn also appears, as the only pro in the movie besides McDormand, who gives a performance that's up there with her award-winning turns in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The highlight is Bob Wells, as the leader of the nomad group, a burly man who resembles Santa Claus. We don't quite know how to view this character to start off, but once we do, it's the most moving moment in the whole film.

Aside from a brief moment of anger at real-estate vultures, Nomadland doesn't have any overt political statements to make, although it does make clear that the boom-and-bust American economy has left far too many people behind, and it's clear that there's no real political energy, from any party, when it comes to dealing with the plight of these types of people.

Challenges at the drive-in

The Philadelphia Film Festival is running through November 2 (a welcome distraction from the lead-up to Election Day) and is using a hybrid model in this year of COVID: about a dozen films are available at the drive-in, while the rest are "virtual," and available on a streaming platform. A handful of titles are available both ways, although Nomadland was drive-in-only.

The drive-in setup, I can say based on attendance at two showings so far, is not ideal. The screen at the Navy Yard, attached to stacked shipping containers, is not large by drive-in standards, and if you want to be able to see it well, it's important to arrive early enough to park your car in the first few rows. And worse than that, the Navy Yard is in the direct flight path of Philadelphia International Airport, which meant that low-flying airplanes passed over the venue roughly every 10 to 15 minutes. This was less of a problem when I caught the late showing of One Night in Miami the following night, possibly because there are fewer planes later at night.

As drive-in movies have had an unexpected renaissance due to COVID, I'm starting to get the sense that the experience of drive-ins is better for classic movies that the viewer has seen many times before, as opposed to films one is discovering for the first time. Much as I loved Nomadland, I was left wishing I could watch it on an indoor big screen, or even on a TV at home.

However, I will give the Film Society credit for assembling a strong lineup this fall, and also for the at-home streaming platform, which is far and away the best of any of the "virtual" film festivals I've covered this year. It even has a Roku app (one of the festival's sponsors) in which the interface is akin to scrolling through Netflix.

Image description: a still from the movie Nomadland. It’s a close-up on actor Frances McDormand in a three-quarters view, giving a small, thoughtful smile. She has very short, messy hair and is wearing a blue shirt. There is a large desert rock formation behind her.

What, When, Where

Nomadland. Written and directed by Chloé Zhao. Screened as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, running through November 2. The PFS Drive-in at the Navy Yard, Admiral Peary Way and League Island Blvd, Philadelphia.

To reduce COVID risks, patrons of the PFS Drive-in are required to stay in their cars.

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