A large number of award-winning films are nothing like the action-packed blockbusters that generate billions of dollars at the box office. Rather than being driven by thrilling chase sequences and clever plot twists, these films tend to just showcase a series of conversations between characters. One such film is director/writer/editor Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, one of the frontrunners for the upcoming Oscars season. The film stars Frances McDormand as a modern-day nomad with nothing but a van. It is the first film to win the top prize at both Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.
Nomadland is a very subdued film. It is a testament to Zhao’s skills as a filmmaker: the acting is incredible, especially since Zhao elected to cast several real-life nomads rather than strictly professional actors; the writing of the dialogue between the characters is very realistic; and the film is visually stunning with its expansive shots of mountains, roads, rocks, trees, and beaches.
Frances McDormand proves again that she is a phenomenal actress. Her character, Fern, is quiet and pensive, and it’s clear how great a toll the effects of the Great Recession have taken on her, and therefore her relationship with her family. McDormand portrays Fern’s frustration through a singular snarky comment to her sister and hesitant but still firm defensive interjections when she finds herself in disagreement with others. There isn’t a classic Oscar-bait huge argument scene with tears and screaming and shattering of glasses, but the way in which McDormand and Zhao have elected to tell Fern’s story is just as – if not more – effective.
The role of the nomads that Fern crosses paths with and befriends are the driving force and the heart of the film. Most of them are victims of difficult situations that led them to choose a nomadic lifestyle, but they are all very accepting and realistic about where they are. Rather than to wallow in self-pity and bitterness, they instead choose to celebrate what life has to offer, vowing to live a life free from regret, and they see no benefit in clinging to what’s of the the past. In sharing these real nomads’ perspectives on life, there was room for the dialogue to be incredibly exaggerated, however it seems that the casting preserved the authenticity of the actor-characters’ sentiment, and of the modern nomadic lifestyle.
Nomadland is a celebration of life in the most unassuming way possible. The film meanders through natural landscapes, and stops for quick chats with the few individuals it finds traversing the scenery. Simply, it is very moving. It’s melancholy, yet it never fails to be hopeful.