Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is a stirring tale about forgotten people learning to live again in a world that’s passed them by. Based on Jessica Bruder’s novel Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film is an odyssey of grief and sorrow anchored in the realization America doesn’t care if you were to wake up the next day. Fern (Frances McDormand) was once a wife and productive member of her community, now has been reduced to a ghost adrift in an uncaring country. It’s sad how timely this film feels.
The film centers around Fern (McDormand), who, during the financial crisis, lost everything, including her Husband due to Cancer. Faced with no job prospects due to a Gypsum plant shutting down in her hometown of Empire, Nevada, she has to live in her van and work as a seasonal worker for Amazon. Her whole world is crumbling, but Fern attempts to keep a positive outlook even in the bleakest of circumstances. Despite her best efforts, her past and present circumstances remind her of just how far she’s fallen. Fern realizes that something has to change, but she’s not sure what that is. After she happens upon a video on the internet talking about learning how to live like a nomad, Fern throws caution to the wind and drives to where they are teaching people this way of life. I mean, it can’t get much worse.
When she arrives, a sense of community overwhelms her as women greet her while welcoming her into their tight-knit group. We quickly see that this group celebrates the nomadic lifestyle by teaching each other how to live off the land. Fern does meet Dave (David Strathairn), and they have an instant connection. What’s striking is that even when it looks like she’s found happiness again, Fern never is really happy. It’s almost if she feels that felling joy betrays memories of what she once and her hometown, which is now in ruin.
She still wears her wedding ring, keeps old plates her dad once had and spends too much time looking at old family photos. It’s as if the weight of the past and the present circumstances won’t allow her to build a future. Even when Dave and Fern’s sister wants her to stay longer, she has the urge to move on. She’s avoiding any feelings of happiness because Fern doesn’t feel she’s worthy of that.
Ludovico Einaudi’s score echoes these people’s pain, reflecting the inner demons that come by seemingly being abandoned. Frances McDormand’s work in the film was breathtaking. She consumes every moment on screen, exuding such pain and feeling hopelessness amongst the loveliest backdrops one could imagine. Zhao brilliantly captures the stunning views and the beauty that came from these downtrodden individuals forming a bond an eventual community. While Nomadland is beautifully written, the film’s real power comes what isn’t said but what is seen. We don’t have to hear McDormand wax poetic about her pain; we can see it in her eyes. Eyes are often a window into one’s heart.
Nomadland is an astonishing cinematic achievement and one of the best films of 2020. Frances McDormand gives the best performance of her career. At the bare minimum, she will be nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Fern. To say that everyone should be excited about this film would be an understatement. Nomadland is due to be released in December.