This year’s awards season seems to have coalesced around the realities of the American experience.
The most successful entrants – say Minari and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – have challenged the notions of the American Dream by discussing how inaccessible it is to immigrants and Black people, respectively. Hillbilly Elegy, on the other hand, crashed and burned with critics for reducing the sociopolitical observations about the Appalachian white working class that forms its source material to caricature, melodrama, or some morbid breed of the two.
Nomadland, based on the nonfiction book of the same name, joins, and exceeds, this year’s tradition. The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand) on her journey across the American West in her van to search for work after her husband passes away and she loses her factory job during the Great Recession. On the road, she meets several people part of the nomadic lifestyle, each with their specific reasons for forgoing a traditional homestead. Fern experiences some challenges as she adjusts to life on the road. She is given opportunities to abandon her decision, but she remains steadfast. She embraces the lifestyle with a blend of humor, resourcefulness, compassion, and admiration for the world she encounters.
Director and writer Chloé Zhao shares Fern’s admiration, capturing the character’s adventures in stunning, deeply evocative shots. The rich deep blues of nightfall and the hazy warmth of mornings on bare land are beautifully framed and communicate Fern’s complicated feelings about her transient lifestyle: the inherent loneliness without her love, the freedom of that loneliness, the hope that the difficulties won’t last. The emotional connection that Zhao forms purely from a cinematographic standpoint is immediate and potent.
Her more stylized cinematic choices complement Nomadland’s straightforward, almost-documentarian approach. The film is told from Fern’s point of view, but her fellow nomads’ stories are just as important, and Zhao offers them ample space in the narrative. Like I had from the film’s synopsis, one might assume that the nomadic lifestyle was largely a result of severe economic hardship and anxiety. That is the driving force behind Fern’s story, and Zhao doesn’t ignore the role of failed government and economic policies in the lifestyle. However, she challenges the stereotype by sharing several unique experiences that led to life on the road. Health crises, lost friends and loved ones, broken families; all have guided the different characters to this particular path. Sadness sits beneath the surface of each story, but they are linked by an overwhelming desire to live life to its fullest.
Zhao deepens that message by presenting the nomad community’s stories with dignity and grace, not an ounce of pity to be found. Nomadland doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of road life, contrasting Fern’s naïveté with Bob and Swankie’s experiences. Still, it doesn’t exploit or shame the nomad lifestyle or community. The film’s later drama is instead staked in the fully-realized, lived-in character work done by those wonderfully quiet, intimate moments that formed its first and second acts. The payoff is just as quiet and intimate and very profound. It’s complicated to pull off, but Zhao makes it appear effortless.
“Effortless” is also the word you can use to describe Frances McDormand’s performance as Fern. She made her career (and won two Best Actress Oscars) playing willful, uncompromising, and quirky women on screen, wrestling command of every frame. In Nomadland, McDormand cedes the space to her co-stars, both human and setting, absorbing the majesty of their experiences and visual splendor. When Fern is listening to the other nomads, McDormand is at her most astonishing. Her reactions don’t just reflect the stories she’s hearing, but how they relate to Fern’s own life. She conveys decades of experience that we don’t have privy to but feel achingly real through her. The hallmarks of McDormand’s most famous creations are there, like the irreverence, but Fern feels like a stunning new dimension of her talent.
Of all the films I’ve seen this season that offer something to say about American life, Nomadland feels the most fully realized. Backed by McDormand’s quietly affecting performance, Zhao’s observations of this slice of western life are astute, confident, and, most importantly, compassionate. It’s a deceptively emotional film, one that sneaks up on you by way of its unassuming look. When it takes hold of you, and it does early on, the effort required to get free doesn’t seem worth it. Not when surrender isn’t just easier but is ultimately more satisfying.