Rarely does a film get released at a time that perfectly captures the current mood and struggles that so many people are experiencing. When a movie can reflect such universal experiences and remain grounded in an authentic, surreal cinematic style, you can’t help but be moved.
Such is the case for “Nomadland,” one of the biggest frontrunners for best picture at the upcoming Academy Awards. Director Chloe Zhao has created a profound examination of the human experience that bleeds with beauty and pain. Similar to her debut feature “The Rider” from 2017, Zhao features real people instead of actors to follow her protagonist’s journey in rural America. With her newest feature, the director subtly explores the aches of loneliness, poverty and perseverance in a way that few directors attempt to tackle.
“Nomadland” follows a woman named Fern (Frances McDormand, in another moving performance from the veteran actress) who, after losing her husband, hits the road out west to live as a modern-day nomad. Losing her home after her zip code in rural Nevada was discontinued, Fern meets several people in the Dakotas, all of whom are played by real nomads, giving the film a unique authenticity.
Zhao does a good job of avoiding romanticizing the nomadic lifestyle. Instead of glamorizing the idea of being a free-spirited nomad who goes wherever they please, the director explores the harsh realities of finding work, staying warm, and developing connections and meaning. Utilizing actual nomads in the film makes every scene feel raw and takes us away from the fact that we’re witnessing a movie. Zhao’s style feels more like a documentary at times, and with Mcdormand’s nuanced performance we forget we’re witnessing a narrative.
Much of “Nomadland’s” strength is that there isn’t a central conflict or plot. Rather than tell a story in which we learn a great deal about our protagonist as they work their way through a specific mission, Zhao takes us into a real lifestyle that people in the urban and suburban world are so distant from. Presenting both the liberation and the struggle that the nomadic lifestyle brings, Zhao is determined from start to finish to find truth in her direction. The filmmaker proves she’s an auteur who is subtle about what she wants to say in her films.
Many who watch the film will question what the point of the film is, yet most of the meaning in the film is derived from its visual depth. In every shot we feel the work of a cinematographer. There’s so much visual weight throughout the film, whether that be in the form of a drastic landscape, a hauntingly beautiful setting that is depicted artfully or a dramatic silhouette. The painful and beautiful world we’re invited to looks all the better with the rhythmic piano score that captures the mood of the entire film.
Zhao is focused on highlighting the lives of those who have mostly been forgotten. Most nomads in present day America have been led into the lifestyle due to economic burdens or personal losses. McDormand captures the heart of isolation and hope in every scene, her performance utterly convincing us of the essence of a wounded spirit and someone searching for meaning.
In today’s age of the coronavirus that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and resulted in millions of others’ losing their jobs and descending into poverty, “Nomadland” is a beacon of light that reminds us of the resilience of humanity. There’s something so pure and unscathed about how moving the final few segments of the film are, almost as if it was meant to be made for those grieving from the negativity of 2020 and 2021.
“Nomadland” connects us to our own fragility with its eloquent mission to explore the vulnerabilities of humanity. This is a fresh approach to filmmaking that may be tough to sit through due to its slow nature but effortlessly captures us with its beauty.