Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao, based on the book by Jessica Bruder
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Straitharn
Nomadland has been a triumph at awards shows and film festivals the world over, in particular the Oscars, with six nominations and scooping up three of those as wins: Best Director for Chloé Zhao, Best Actress for Frances McDormand and, of course, Best Film. Focusing a film on the realities of human life, whether a common societal truth that’s within the public consciousness or something less established in the mainstream, is always bound to attract a lot of attention. However, it’s the lasting impression that a film leaves its audiences with that is the most meaningful, that rare impact that ultimately breathes life into cinema. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the most profound, but if we aren’t left with something significant afterward that we can take away and think about, or even apply in our own lives, then we can certainly wonder, what was the point? Is Nomadland truly such a film worthy of all the accolades, one that leaves us with a new sense of something, or has it been overhyped and perhaps overawarded in the industry’s new mission to be more inclusive to minority artists?
Mostly a drama with a little documentary feel here and there, Nomadland follows new nomad Fern (McDormand) as she gets to grips with her new way of life. After the company she worked for shut down, the township built around the company became abandoned (something that truly happened) and, after the passing of her husband, Fern put her belongings into storage, purchased a van and began the life of a nomad. On her travels she meets many interesting (and very real) people, learning how to survive on the road from other nomads, as well as building strong relationships with members of the nomad community. She takes on odd jobs, including holiday seasons at Amazon, and takes the time to fill herself with the wonders of nature and the North American landscape, escaping the corporate lifestyle that most people trying to survive.
The biggest thing to note (ok, one of the biggest things) is how beautifully this film flows and just how real it feels. Unlike the potentially tumultuous life of a nomad, not once does it feel jarring or as though Zhao is taking advantage of the stories provided by the real people featured. McDormand effortlessly inserts herself into the community, where you can feel she is accepted and the community are open about divulging their own reasons for living the way they do, which ranges from young people experiencing something other than the rat race, to older people who have seen enough of people running themselves ragged and finding themselves in an early grave to know they want to appreciate their twilight years. One thing that stood out was something Bob Wells, the founder of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering for nomads – or ‘vandwellers’ – says so poignantly within the film, “If society was throwing us away and sending us as the work horse out to the pasture, we work horses have to gather together and take care of each other.” If that doesn’t sum up how modern society treats most older workers and retirees these days, I don’t know what does. It also sums up exactly how it should be – taking care of each other.
Other big things to note are the score, the cinematography and, of course, McDormand’s performance. The score, which features music by Ludovico Einaudi, is exceptionally beautiful and daringly simple (I immediately sought it out on Apple Music). It doesn’t overtake the visual aspects of the film, but instead compliments it, with the cinematography acting like sharp choreography. Cinematographer Joshua James Richard’s work here is equally stunning, with wide shots taking in the breathtaking landscape and the close-ups that draw us into the emotional landscape of McDormand’s Fern, taking us where words possibly couldn’t. Together, the score and the cinematography create something that is certainly wonderous, and will fritter you away to another world, or so it feels. There’s something truly special about a film when it can tell you and make you feel so much while using little dialogue. Throw in McDormand’s deep, open-hearted and genuine performance (as if we could ever expect anything less from the now three-time Best Actress winner) and it’s clear that Zhao was able to bring all these expertly crafted aspects together to concoct something that absolutely made the film deserving of its many awards. This includes the many extras made up of the vandwellers themselves, a fantastic community that are able to see life in ways other than the “norm”.
If you come away from Nomadland empty-handed (or empty-minded, as it were), perhaps you weren’t watching properly and you should try again, because there is a treasure trove of meaning within it. Even if you only take away one thing, it’s bound to be something that you can apply to your own life. On the surface the film can appear rather simple, but perhaps it is within its simplicity where its power lies. Sometimes we don’t need all the metaphors and dialogue that most films give us – it’s real people and real experiences, and sometimes it’s just being. Nomadland is truly an eye-opener to a way of life that many people will turn their homebody noses up at, but Zhao captures the essence of vandweller life wonderfully, ultimately proving that the esteem bestowed upon her is entirely deserved. I would hope this would still stand had this film been made/released five years ago, and it wouldn’t have been passed over purely because it is helmed by a woman who falls into minority categories. Also, quire in the same vein of inclusion, we are shown how all of us, no matter who we are, our circumstances or where we choose to place ourselves, have more in common than we might think – a commonality that stems from that very thing that can make a film like this so successful: we’re all very much human.