Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, Peter Spears
2021 best picture winner at the Oscars is an intimate and authentic character study of a modern-day nomad in America, fuelled by one of the best performances of Frances McDormand’s career. It’s a deeply moving story about life and makes you question your own life along the way, and whether you would be able to live on the road and if there are things you want to achieve that you haven’t yet.
Frances McDormand delivers a phenomenal performance as Fern, a nomad who was forced out of her home in Empire, after the local mine and the town itself closed down. Still grieving the loss of her husband, Fern buys a van and decides to live on the road, taking temporary work where she can get it and not settling down in anyone place.
The film is inspired upon a non-fiction book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Fern isn’t a real person, but a log of the supporting characters are based upon people in the book, and some of them are played by real nomads. Everything about the film is completely natural and authentic, to the point that it almost feels like a documentary just capturing real life. There’s no attempt to say this is the best way to live, or that nomads should settle down, it’s just capturing a way of life and understanding a way of thinking that can leave you reflective on your own life.
There’s a moment where a nomad tells a story about why she chose the life, because of a co-worker who had a boat on their driveway for years, waiting for their retirement. Before they could use the boat, they were diagnosed with cancer and died, leaving the wisdom of don’t waste any time. The fact that you could die without getting the time to do what you’ve wanted to is real, and something that we all have to deal with, and that’s one of the central themes of the film that really resonates throughout. There’s another heart breaking story about a father who outlives his son, and the effect that had on his life. It’s not just the dark times that the film is reflecting on, it’s also celebrating the good times, messing about with co-workers, meeting new people and the good times that are on the road. Not everyone living ‘houseless’, as the film puts it, is doing it out of grief, but to find happiness in the world, capturing the joys of life and everything associated with it.
While the film is about the lifestyle, it is presented through a deeply personal character study of Fern, who is struggling with the loss of her husband. You learn about their life through snippets of conversation, and stories. It’s a beautifully told story about love and loss that is deeply moving. McDormand is absolutely phenomenal in the role. Just the smallest thing, from a glance to a pause in speech, says everything you need to know about the character.
Nomadland is an odd film, in the sense that at times it feels very directionless, but it’s always engaging. It captures a way of life in a fascinating way, using real nomads to tell their stories, and it also works on the level of being a drama about grief. It’s a powerful story.
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