By Bradley Lane
Director Chloé Zhao’s critical darling film Nomadland has been the talk of film festivals internationally for almost a year and now that it was released last weekend on Hulu and in theaters, audiences are finally getting to see what all the hype is about. However, immediately upon viewing it might seem like an odd choice to be leading the Best Picture conversation for the Academy Awards simply because of how quiet and small the film seems. Typical awards candidates make loud, bold and often daring narrative decisions for maximum emotional impact but Nomadland emphatically rejects that form of storytelling. Instead it opts for a nuanced and subtle approach that uses that small-scale intimacy for a different type of impact.
Blending the lines between documentary and narrative fiction, nearly every character in Nomadland is played by themselves, save for the two stars, Frances McDormand as Fern and David Strathairn as David. Fern is an aging widow when she decides to take on a nomadic life out of a van after losing her lifelong job to the closing of the Empire, Nevada U.S. Gypsum plant. This immediately leads her to find a small but well-connected community of elderly nomads traveling from camp to camp looking for part-time work to supplement their measly social security benefits. This community lays the foundation for Fern to experience her narrative arc by learning how to be self-sufficient in this lifestyle, make friends and eventually find love again.
The story Zhao is interested in telling is a distinctly human one, focusing on Fern’s character to great effect. Fern is immensely relatable and often reminds me of people I care about in her idiosyncrasies, which makes her easy to root for and always empathetic. This becomes necessary later in the film when Fern makes decisions that could alienate the audience from her character, but you find yourself so invested in her struggle to survive meaningfully, and with dignity, that you are never doubtful of her good intentions.
Despite the emphasis of the film being interpersonal, the subtext of the film is inherently political, and that subtext can often be louder than the text. The conditions that force elderly communities to turn to the nomadic work-to-survive lifestyle is never far from the audience’s mind as we watch Fern’s story play out. Not only that but because of the film’s dedication to the real-life nomads that are featured in the film, we get to hear firsthand the horrors of extreme poverty from the mouths of America’s elderly, who should be one of society’s top priorities that are protected from such a cruel reality.
These two elements work together masterfully in tandem to create a narrative that moves slowly and carefully but builds into some of the most emotionally resonant sequences you’ll see all year. Watching Nomadland won’t be for everyone because of its slow pace, but if you have the time for its patient storytelling, you’ll be moved to your core. – 4.5/5 stars