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Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir-scr Chloe Zhao
prd Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloe Zhao
with Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Melissa Smith, Derek Endres, Patricia Grier, Warren Keith, Tay Strathairn, Emily Jade Foley, Mike Sells
release US 4.Dec.20,
20/US Searchlight 1h48
VENICE FILM FEST
TORONTO FILM FEST
Is it streaming?
A hybrid between drama and fly-on-the-wall doc, this astonishing film takes a journey through an unseen segment of US society, chronicling the thousands of Baby Boomers whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the 2008 Great Recession. With almost everyone on-screen playing themselves, actor Frances McDormand, filmmaker Chloe Zhao and gifted cinematographer Joshua James Richards create a powerful portrait of a vast community on the move around the American West.
When her Nevada town closes down in 2011, the widowed Fern (McDormand) puts her things in storage and hits the road in her campervan. She takes her first temp job in an Amazon warehouse, then moves south as winter sets in. Along the road, joins a crowd of older people who migrate between workplaces, learning the system from Linda, Swankie and Bob. She also repeatedly crosses paths with Dave (Strathairn), striking up a friendship. He develops a crush on Fern, and she values him as a friend, but isn't sure she wants more than that.
Fern doesn't want to be seen as homeless, preferring "houseless". Her fellow nomads feel like they've cut the bonds of corporate slavery and are now living freely. Their engaging personalities light up the screen as they share stories and offer tips for van living and finding work. Bracingly emotional moments come in discussions of illness, as none of these people have health insurance. And when Fern asks her sister (Smith) for help, she realises something important about her new reality.
McDormand delivers a luminous, understated performance as a woman who refuses to let life knock her down. As she travels, Fern reconnects with nature, delicately highlighted when she tries to sleep under a couple of roofs. As another fictional character, Strathairn is equally natural as the tentative Dave, who may have had enough of this lifestyle. The people around them are fascinating; itinerant people don't go in for chitchat, digging deeply in their interaction, helping and celebrating each other, knowing that there's never a final goodbye.
Living in vans themselves while shooting, the cast and crew capture the expansive Western landscapes with a rare authenticity. While never shying away from hardships, the film finds dignity and liberation in how these people live outside the capitalist machine. Anecdotes these characters recount are compelling, beautiful expressions of what it means to be fully human. All of which gives the film an almost elegiac quality, an obituary for the American Dream perhaps, and a hopeful cry for something even better.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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