Frances McDormand is a famous multi Oscar winning actress and presumably fairly wealthy, therefore portraying a “normal” every-woman on screen might prove quite difficult, when you are anything but in real life.

However, nobody does naturalistic acting, shorn of any Hollywood artifice better than McDormand.

Teaming up with director Chloé Zhao telling a story based on the book by Jessica Bruder which shines a light on a little known slice of American sub culture, people living in vans, a home on wheels.

These are not RV’s with satellite TV, mood lighting and showers, these are cheap small vans, personally configured to maximise the space and usability of these tiny, truly mobile homes.

McDormand plays fictional character “Fern”, a former substitute teacher choosing this lifestyle following the death of her husband and collapse of her rural Nevada hometown, when the largest employer “Gypsum” shuts down.

Fern is at pains to point out to concerned friends, she is not homeless just house-less, there is a difference.

Traveling around, Fern picks up temporary jobs to pay for fuel and food, one day working at Amazon “the money is good”, the next as a camp host at an RV site, working at a beet farm the next.

The film is contemplative, reflective and requires patient viewing to accept the slower rhythms of life portrayed. Fern meets many fellow travelers along the way, most of whom are not actors, most notably Swankie, Linda and Bob. These are real people with real life-stories and tragedies they share on screen, effectively emoting to a made up character, with a fake backstory.

In some ways this takes a while to accept, everyone involved would know there is a film crew, camera equipment and McDormand is hardly a below the radar actress. Occasionally uncomfortable to watch but the heartfelt admissions of how much Fern has helped them, both presumably in and out of character feel real enough.

Everyone involved would take part knowing the slight filmic deceit being achieved. Despite being non actors, the director has teased heartfelt and touching stories from these somewhat vulnerable people, living on the very fringes of society.

McDormand is superb as we have come to expect, effortlessly sketching out an intelligent, slightly downtrodden yet fundamentally happy woman in her sixties, finding her new place in the world. Does it make her family and others happy, not so much but Fern is beyond that now. Even when opportunity strikes via the one other named actor David Strathairn, it still represents a door she may/may not choose to enter.


A thoughtful, beautifully shot film which requires a different approach to viewing. Take at face value and accept the quasi documentary style and mix of real/acting emotions on screen and enjoy a glimpse into a life few of us knew about.

Incidentally the film won “Best Film”, “Best Actress” and “Best Director” at the Oscars, worthy winners albeit unlikely to have multiplex appeal, which is just as well in a pandemic year.