Review: ‘Nomadland’ Is a Modern Masterpiece of the Average American

Acclaimed drama is an Oscar frontrunner

By Amy Daniels, Current Staff

After “Nomadland” earned six Oscar nominations and rave reviews from critics, I decided to see for myself if the movie deserved the attention it was getting.

Directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand, “Nomadland” is a 107-minute drama/western based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.” The film, which stars Frances McDormand as a van-dwelling widow, was released Feb. 19 simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service Hulu and has been part of every major awards conversation. On Sunday, it will compete at the Academy Awards for best picture, actress (McDormand), director, adapted screenplay, cinematography and film editing.

“Nomadland” is a documentary-like film about the decisions we sometimes make to live our best lives. It is also about the decisions we make when we have no other option. When society no longer supports you financially or spiritually, you must push ahead and make your own social and financial structure. Sometimes this shift entails much sacrifice—the disappearance of plumbing, electricity, medical care and more. But a perspective that few people have is that material wealth is nothing compared to the ownership of freedom and happiness.

Fern, the movie’s main character, understands this message. The film opens with her placing nearly everything she owns  in a storage shed so she can live on her own terms. In the end, she discards everything altogether.

The culture of wanderers this film shows fulfills this truth. Some reached this truth by choice, some by necessity. Regardless of the journey, the common desire to possess time and to enjoy the complete riches of the natural world is what now unites them—even more than the lingering sense of class consensus hiding in the shadows.

Director Chloé Zhao portrays the nomads as much more than carefree, naive adventure seekers eager for an alternative lifestyle. The fringe community of “Nomadland” is generally filled with recent trauma, haunted by current or past corruptions in their lifestyles, such as cancer, low money or poor jobs. Artistically, Zhao recycles key parts of the first act toward the end of the move, hinting at the notion of eternal repetition. Returning to familiar spaces such as the Amazon warehouse where Fern worked, the RV park where she stayed early on and the storage facility serves as a reminder that your past follows you, whether good or bad. 

Zhao is able to beautifully show that there is an enormous dignity to roaming the American West like a pioneer. There is value in reuniting with the natural world around you. Although the lifestyle may seem scrappy and messy, surviving amongst the elements of the wild grants the spirit a beautiful feeling of freedom. And for this reason, “Nomadland” easily feels, on many planes, like a mournful yet celebratory tribute for the dying nomadic breed.

The landscape and scenery is presented beautifully and it feels very majestic and serene. The people are authentic and tell their own emotional and, I assume, true stories. I feel as if Frances McDormand is just the thread leading our eye from one piece of a messy collage to the next. It is the country’s story as much as the story of Fern and the other supporting characters. 

Zhao is able to beautifully show that there is an enormous dignity to roaming the American West like a pioneer.

McDormand really is one of the best actors of her generation and this performance is spectacular. She invites you in to witness this lifestyle and fills you with curiosity about it all. It is amazing how the majority of the other actors, who aren’t professionally trained, give such meaningful and mesmerizing performances. This is a testament to how talented Chloé Zhao is as a director. 

Zhao’s mastery for showing compassion for the lower and working class is incredible. She captures art, not only in the breathtaking cinematography, but also with despair, loneliness and the willingness to move on in order to grow as a person. It’s a true demonstration of her ability to capture moments that are filled with love and hope. As one man named Bob says in the film, “You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye. I always just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’”

Zhao, as a Chinese-American filmmaker, has broken many records and blazed many trails for women and People of Color in the industry. She is the second woman to win a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for best director and she is the first woman of color to win the top Directors Guild of America honor. In my view, she certainly deserves the Academy Award for best director, and Nomadland deserves to win best picture. 

This is an emotionally-moving film that anyone can relate to in some way, and it humanizes a segment of the population that is usually overlooked. That makes it one of the most important movies of the year.

(Images from “Nomadland” are official publicity material.)

1 Comment

Filed under Entertainment, Viewpoint

One response to “Review: ‘Nomadland’ Is a Modern Masterpiece of the Average American

  1. James Cramer

    Great review! Will definitely see this film.

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