How many of us would be willing to embrace a minimalistic lifestyle, giving up almost all of our belongings, roaming the plains? Not gonna lie, if we were to think about it, we’ll probably hesitate or ponder hard before doing such. After all, there are loads of uncertainties and dangers if we were to engage in such a lifestyle.
Nevertheless, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” which debuted over the weekend on streaming, posits that very premise to an audience: the life of a modern-day wanderer. Having earned the top prizes at both Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, we were curious to see what the fuss was all about. So, what is it that makes “Nomadland” the talk of the town? Let’s have a look!
In “Nomadland”, Frances McDormand plays a Fern, a woman who has just lost her life partner and property as the town she lives in withers and fades off due to the closure of a gypsum mining facility. As her seasonal gig at an Amazon factory expires for the winter, she embarks on a new journey of self-discovery, joining a desert rendezvous in Arizona and getting accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle.
“Nomadland” is a beautiful and harrowing reflection of today’s community, of the individual’s plight. There is no doubt that while this movie was initially conceived in 2018, there has been an increase in hardship due to the pandemic that struck the globe in 2020. Many have been forced out of their erstwhile life, some their livelihoods, a loss of friends and family. Nevertheless, what the film makes a point of is that while a lone twig may split at the centre, a bunch of them are bound together; as caring for one another will not just make them stronger, but also grow into an elegant and bountiful harvest.
This is the definition of home as it is. It’s not a place. No. It’s the people.
“I’m not homeless, just houseless,” Fern attempts to clarify when asked about the state of her being. Indeed, the film spends much time giving Fern a home in the rendezvous, the people that she interacts with along the way. Those sweet souls. They’re her home.
It is interesting to note that many of the characters in “Nomadland” aside from McDormand’s are actually playing versions of their real-life counterparts. In fact, most of them are actual van dwellers such as the elders: Swankie and Linda. It’s interesting to understand where these people are coming from, what their point of views are with regards to their lifestyle. For some, they just couldn’t accept being stuck in a hospital bed when their time was up.
In many ways, the movie tends to make itself feel like a documentary of the van dwelling practice. It’s raw. The community is real. The events they organise are real events being practised by the rendezvous in Arizona. Even the brains behind the actual operation, Bob Wells, is a character in this film. All these add to the realism, humanity, and authenticity of the craft.
As much as there is a focus on Fern interacting and meeting new personalities in her nomadic quest, there is also a haunting segment dedicated to displaying the character’s isolation. Fern’s journey through and through is one of self-discovery. It is deeply personal, and many times we experience her grief, the ghosts of her past, and the utter isolation she goes through even though she is surrounded by people. It’s tough looking at her chuckle in silence, staring into the distance with uncertainty at first. Nevertheless, as she grows, she begins to see that her own commitment to caring for herself being more pronounced and by the movie’s end, Fern the van dweller’s arc is complete.
We couldn’t help but notice the film’s thematic scope on rocks and geological features. Zhao made it clear that the rocks were a significant part of her cinematography as pebbles, and larger porous landforms are shown. Indeed, it could very well signify the character’s rocky relationship with life, how the stones had been hurled at her at this moment in time. Nevertheless, Fern’s adamant stance to maintain her own independence and individuality could also be interpreted as her being the pillar standing strong, never being eroded by the ocean.
Moving on, Frances McDormand, oh gosh. The sheer commitment to the role has to be applauded as she makes every second of her performance count. The pained expressions, her joy, her awkward silences, are all nuanced in a manner to breathe as much life into Fern. It’s a very different character than the fiery one she plays in “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, but it’s still an absolute joy to see her in this role.
“Nomadland” is truly spectacular as it is. Chloé Zhao has stamped her name in Tinseltown, making her one of the most exciting rising helmers to look out for in the next few years (hell, she’s directing Marvel Studios’ “Eternals”), and “Nomadland” proves every bit of it. She’s meticulous in her narrative, direction, and framing of Fern, imbuing the pain and pressures of a middle-aged widow as she traverses the landscape, and, oh, are they gorgeous. Zhao’s long wide shots of purple skies, accompanied by a delicate melody emanating from a piano, was an emotional experience.
It probably might be laborious for some viewers to get through this film, especially in these tough times because, yes, it truly hits close to home. Indeed, we’re not mad people when we say that the film is spellbinding as an authentic tale, one that is a slightly fictionalised version of reality, human in every step of the way. Coupled with Zhao’s impeccable filmmaking sense and McDormand’s solid skills on the screen, it’s no wonder that “Nomadland” is running for glory this year.
Profound. Captivating. Brilliant.
“Nomadland” is currently streaming on Hulu. The film is rated R for nudity and strong language.
Chloé Zhao's "Nomadland" proves why it's a frontrunner for this year's awards season as its authentic filmmaking approach make it one of the most relatable and human narratives to hit the screen in recent times.
- "Nomadland" Review