Oscar Contender Nomadland is a Mesmerizing Docudrama

by Hassan Ilahi

Imagine living life on the road as a modern-day nomad. In the aftereffects of the COVID-19 Pandemic, rising unemployment rates have caused millions of senior Americans to consider nomadic living. Nomads are van-dwelling drifters without stable jobs that journey across the American West. Not only is the cost of living affordable, but it allows people to bond with mother nature. Despite its benefits, though, the nomadic life isn’t without its obstacles. Nomads are often forced to sever ties with their families, friends and past lives, leading towards feelings of loneliness. Why has living on the road become a prevalent lifestyle in the U.S. during the pandemic?

The attractive appeal of this unconventional lifestyle is compassionately captured in Chloé Zhao’s latest Oscar-nominated film Nomadland. A poignant, thought-provoking and inspirational docudrama, it offers an eye-opening look at a little-known subculture in America. With her third feature, writer/director Chloé Zhao investigates a marginalized community from an empathetic lens. Packed with exquisite production values, minimalist storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is one of the best movies of 2020. Although Nomadland is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It moves at a meandering pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers heartwarming entertainment that will satisfy fans of art-house Cinema.

Based on the best-selling book, Nomadland tells the story of a widowed woman that journeys through Western America in pursuit of connection. Frances McDormand stars in the leading role as Fern, a grieving woman reeling from the loss of her husband. However, Fern’s life forever changes when her hometown closes down following the Great Recession. Left without a home, Fern embarks on a spiritual journey across the country as a van-dwelling nomad. As Fern embraces her newfound lifestyle, she discovers her true identity.

Writer/director Chloé Zhao is no stranger to themes of identity. Ever since she earned worldwide recognition with Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015, Zhao has proven to be an outstanding Chinese filmmaker. Her movies are commonly characterized by expansive landscapes, use of non-professional actors and a neorealist style that blends documentary with fiction. With Nomadland, however, Zhao has crafted her first docudrama on nomadic life. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to capture the experiences of modern-day nomads in the U.S., but she pulls it off seamlessly. Using gorgeous cinematography, Zhao draws viewers into the journey of a depressed woman that embarks on a life-changing roadtrip across the American West. Zhao’s decision to shoot the movie using magic hour lighting pays off immensely. Working alongside cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao expertly utilizes magic hour lighting to showcase beauty of Western U.S. Zhao excels at immersing viewers into the lives of nomads, and her latest film is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of marginalized communities do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Nomadland. Zhao excels at utilizing expansive landscapes to showcase the loneliness of nomadic living. For example, Fern is often framed against vast landscapes that capture her vulnerable financial position. Like a tiny ant in a gigantic world, Fern is often overshadowed by the treacherous landscapes that surround her in Western America. Using these vast terrains, Zhao gives viewers a sense of the isolation faced by nomads. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Ludovico Einaudi’s score is sublime. It gives the film a melancholic and tender atmosphere reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Through marvelous production values, Zhao keeps viewers engaged in the journey of a van-dwelling woman.

Another extraordinary aspect of Nomadland is the screenplay. Zhao’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her ability to create a compassionate portrayal of an oppressed population through minimal dialogue. When capturing the lives of downtrodden communities, filmmakers often tend to criticize their lifestyles through false judgement. This often leaves little room for emotional investment and contributes towards misconceptions of populations. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with Nomadland. Zhao wisely avoids criticizing the nomadic life. Instead, she investigates the community from the non-judgemental perspective of an outsider. Zhao evokes empathy for the nomads using minimal dialogue. Zhao expertly uses scenes of silence to convey the displacement experienced by a nomadic woman on the fringes of society. Using this subtle technique, Zhao creates a compelling character whom viewers can easily identify with. Minimal dialogue is a tricky technique to use effectively in dramas. Absence of dialogue can often bore viewers. However, it works immensely in this film. Using an unconventional script, Zhao keeps viewers invested in a tight-knit community.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast.

Frances McDormand delivers her finest performance to date as Fern. McDormand has spent most of her career playing tenacious women in crime thrillers (ex. 1996’s Fargo). With Nomadland, however, she takes on her most demanding role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a grief-stricken woman that adopts an unorthodox nomadic lifestyle. It’s a challenging role that requires the actress to express palpable emotions with little dialogue. However, McDormand pulls it off effortlessly. With melancholic expressions, she conveys the agony, loneliness and perseverance of a woman that refuses to conform towards societal standards of living. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance from one of the greatest actresses working today.

The supporting cast is excellent and also worthy of recognition. Zhao’s decision to cast non-professional real-life nomads as fictionalized versions of themselves is risky, but it works tremendously. Whether it is Swankie’s heartfelt reflections on her illness or Bob Wells’ inspirational monologues to the community, each nomad fearlessly recounts their own personal story onscreen. It lends realism and authenticity to the movie, making it feel like a fact-based documentary rather than a fictional work.

The final component of Nomadland that deserves appreciation is its message. Although it focuses on a niche American subculture, the film’s message has the power to resonate with global audiences. The movie covers timely topics such as displacement, isolation and economic uncertainty that will connect with viewers in the post-pandemic era. Viewers don’t need to be familiar with the nomadic lifestyle to identify with the economic hardships portrayed in the film. In this regard, Nomadland has universal appeal.

For all its merits, however, Nomadland isn’t quite the masterpiece that it has been labeled by critics. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace. Accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s melodic score, Zhao keeps the movie moving at an engaging pace during the first-half. However, there are times when it starts to lose momentum and test the viewer’s patience. Due to its meandering pacing, Nomadland may not satisfy mainstream audiences seeking commercial entertainment.

Nevertheless, fans of Chloé Zhao’s films will definitely appreciate Nomadland and so will movie-goers seeking heartwarming entertainment. A mesmerizing work of art, it honors an oft-ignored American subculture. As a window into a way of life, one only hopes that its reflections on recession will allow a world that has been cast adrift by a global pandemic to recover today.

Hassan’s Grade:  A

Want more? Nomadland was previously reviewed by Steve Pulaski here!