Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland showcases all that makes the American experience unique and inspiring; it’s sprawling natural landscapes, the humility of its people, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Nomadland follows the story of Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman grieving not only the loss of her husband but also her way of life. We learn early on that Fern, like many Americans after the 2007 financial crisis, has recently become houseless; the result of her town’s zip code being eliminated after the closure of a local gypsum plant. Now living completely alone in her modified van, Fern works as a seasonal worker at the local Amazon Centre; a vision of the country's transitioning economy. Fern eventually meets up with a group of nomads, those who have, by choice or by circumstance, decided to live their lives out of their vehicles. Here she finds solace amongst those who are broken, but still human.
There is a scene early on, in which a beloved family ornament is accidentally shattered to pieces by a well meaning friend. Not a beat is skipped as we see Fern calmly collect the broken shards and set to work glueing them back together. I can think of no greater metaphor for this film; a woman, broken and shattered, not letting her past define her, but instead trying to find peace and build back something that might not resemble what was there before, but something that is arguably just as beautiful.
Nomadland finds beauty and poetry in the tale of a seemingly normal woman and her struggles in an ever changing world. The story is given more life by a masterclass performance from two time academy award winner Frances McDormand and her somewhat improvised and naturalistic conversations with the real life nomads that populate the film. These honest, intense conversations about grief, loss, hope and community help ground the film in a sense of realism that is rarely captured on the screen. On a technical level, the cinematography work implemented by Joshua James Richards (The Rider) brings a second level of beauty to an already stunning film. From the wide, sweeping American landscapes (that appear to be shot exclusively at golden hour) to intimate shots of Fern walking through a nomad encampment, Nomadland is a beautiful film to experience. The moving score by Ludovico Einaudi (that’s easily my favorite of the year) is a character in and of itself and only adds to the poetry of it all.
Nomadland is a film that believes in the innate goodness of other people. Even if the societal system that we all take part in seems unjust and uncaring. It reminds us that there is more in our common humanity that binds us together than drives us apart; our shared grief, our love for those we care about and the want to be treated with decency. With this film, Chloe Zhao has masterfully told the story of a woman running from grief, unmoored from society, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
It seems in a way that Nomadland is an answer to the restlessness and anxiety that 2020 brought. And although you might not be able to directly relate to Fern’s struggles, we can all understand that sense of uncertainty and the simple pleasures that keep us moving forward; a smile from a loved one, a walk in nature, a kind gesture from a stranger.
One thing is for certain, you will leave this film a better person. A little bit more confident that, no matter what lies ahead, we can all make it through, together.