“Nomadland” (2020) was written and directed by Chloe Zhao and is based on the 2017 novel of the same name written by Jessica Bruder. The story follows Fern, who loses her home during the 2008 recession, and then decides to pack up all of her belongings and live her life as a modern-age nomad.
The best way to describe “Nomadland” is natural. As a viewer, I felt like I was there with Fern, played by Frances McDormand. It felt like every interaction she had, every trial she faced, and every moment of beauty she witnessed was also witnessed by me. That’s what makes “Nomadland” a masterpiece.
Zhao’s naturalistic approach to filmmaking was so present in this film that, at the beginning, I genuinely thought that I was watching an extremely well-shot documentary feature. As a viewer, it seemed like I was eavesdropping on real people talking about real things. Sometimes they alluded to the notion of the fragility of life, and how we need to cherish the time that we have with each other. And other times they just had trivial work conversations that went absolutely nowhere from a story perspective. I don’t think the plot was at the forefront of Zhao’s mind when she created this film, but I also don’t think it was supposed to be.
This film plays out in a manner that is steeped in realism. It begins in the middle of Fern performing a task, and ends the same way – because life never really ends until it ends. I wouldn’t necessarily call “Nomadland” a narrative, rather I would describe it as a collection of scenes focusing on Fern’s life as a nomad. The non-traditional approach to storytelling honestly caught me off guard. During my initial viewing, I found myself wondering “what’s the point?” As far as any specific point, I think that one would be hard pressed to find the absolute, no shadow of a doubt, outright point of “Nomadland,” but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This movie is about the nomadic experience that consists of making your van a fully functional home, working odd jobs and forming a cross country community. As a viewer, however, this story wouldn’t feel real without its magnificent performances.
Frances McDormand is a fantastic lead of this film. The majority of the screen time is dedicated to following her, but the nomads who she meets along the way add a distinct sense of realism to the film. Zhao didn’t hire well-known actors to surround McDormand’s Fern, and that decision paid off. Since I had no exposure to these performers in their previous works, it just felt like they were regular people living their nomadic lives. How they interacted with Fern was so organic, and it was incredible to see the performances that Zhao led them to. Obviously Fern is the star of the film, but the people around her enhance her as a character and make her a believable human being. McDormand does an amazing job melting into her character and feeling as organic as her lesser-known counterparts. Her performance is extremely subdued, and it makes a lot of sense for her character. There was no extremely “Oscar-worthy” scene where she yelled a lot and overtly acted. Her performance was so subtle that the film didn’t need her to emote in an extraneous manner. With that said, there’s no doubt that Frances McDormand will have another Oscar on her mantle after this masterful performance.
As cliche as it may sound, this film is ultimately about the people who we meet along the way of our own perspective journeys. The film makes a point to telling us that it’s never about saying goodbye – it’s about saying see you later.