Frances McDormand knocks it out of the park in this film of a woman living in a van.
In 2011, Fern (Frances McDormand) lost her job when the Empire, Nevada gypsum plant closed, eventually causing the town to fold. Her husband having recently died, Fern sells most of her property and moves into a van to travel the country while working seasonal jobs. Her friend Linda May (Linda May) invites her to a desert rendezvous with notable nomad Bob Wells (himself). There, Fern meets fellow travelers Dave (David Strathairn) and Swankie (Charlene Swankie). We then follow Fern as she spends a year moving around the country, working, living, and meeting the strange and wonderful people who have chosen not to be burdened with living in a house or apartment.
The first thing that you notice about this movie is that it has a different feel than most dramatic films. Aside from the fact that many of the characters are clearly playing fictionalized versions of themselves, many of the shots and the way the audio is presented are all reminiscent of documentary-style filmmaking. Writer-Director Chloe Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, similarly used relatively untrained actors and a lot of documentary techniques to present the narrative. Since the film is basically a combination of a character study of Fern and a documentary about the Rubber Tramps who travel around the country living in cars and RVs. The film takes an almost completely independent view about the lifestyle, showing both the hardships associated with it as well as the freedom that it grants. In a year, Fern sees as much of the US as many people see in their lives, but also has to clean a lot of toilets.
Frances McDormand has to pretty much carry most of this movie on her shoulders, something that would probably not work if it wasn’t Frances McDormand. There are scenes of her staring into the distance that might be boring in most films, but somehow when we watch her, we are begging to hear what she’s thinking. It’s not like Fern is even depicted as a spectacular introspective protagonist, she’s just a normal person who is dealing with her entire life changing. In many movies, the person in her situation would be dismissed as lesser or unworthy, but here she’s just someone living her life. McDormand and Zhao don’t just pull us past our traditional image of vandwellers as “homeless drifters,” they make it clear that these are just humans living a life that, while different, is still a life worth living.
Overall, this was just a great movie. It’s a worthy nomination for Best Picture.
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