Review: ‘Nomadland,’ a glimpse into the real nomadic narrative

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Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Natalie Duerr, news correspondent

In these times of self-isolation, it can feel like there isn’t anything out there for us. However, with breathtaking shots of national parks and a community of characters, “Nomadland” reminds the viewer that there is more to Earth than just our small apartments or dorms during quarantine. It is a world of nature yet to be explored filled with people who will care for you.

“Nomadland” is written, directed, edited and co-produced by Chloé Zhao. The film follows Fern, played by Francis McDormand, as she hits the American road in a van in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The story focuses on the often forgotten: those who have decided to live outside of our normal, capitalistic society and be modern-day nomads. What could have been a depressing tale about the lack of care the most vulnerable receive ends up being a tender piece about community and how everyone is trying to find their own version of happiness.

What makes “Nomadland” special is its slow-paced realness. It is in no rush to get anywhere. We follow Fern in the humdrum of everyday life: working, eating, doing laundry and experiencing small pockets of happiness. That’s part of the magic – Zhao captures a true human experience, not one that feels glamorized or dramatized.

This realistic approach even translates to the cast, most of whom are real-life nomads. Zhao and her crew met nomads while traveling, heard their stories and intertwined those narratives into the script. This meant constant revisions and workdays that seemingly never ended for her and the crew, but the results were worth all the trouble. This extra effort created a deep streak of reality within an otherwise fictitious film. 

Not only is Zhao able to capture the essence of human existence, but she also presents the beauty of these characters’ surroundings. Shots continuously linger around their environment, giving the viewer a chance to absorb the scenery. Whether it’s an interior shot of a restaurant in South Dakota or a basking shot of the Badlands, every frame is a piece of art. Fern travels from an Amazon fulfillment center in the Midwest to desert campgrounds to the Pacific Northwest, all while the changing seasons and vast landscapes are stunningly captured.  

“Nomadland” is a well-knitted blanket of so many different concepts and thoughts, leaving it up to the viewer to decide which strings they want to pull on. From Fern’s fear of commitment to the beauty of Mother Nature, there are many things to take away from this journey. It offers no grandiose conclusion, which may bore some viewers. But for those who complete the pilgrimage, Zhao pushes them to reflect on whether they are truly finding happiness in the present. 

Having won the highest award at Venice Film Festival, the Golden Lion, and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival, this film is sure to make waves at the Oscars and Golden Globes in 2021. “Nomadland” cements Chloé Zhao as one to watch. At only 38 years old, her talent is obvious and immense and her future bright. 

Rating: 4.5/5

“Nomadland” is arriving in theatres Dec. 4, 2020. The film will also be shown at drive-ins for Chicago Film Festival (Oct. 24) and Virginia Film Festival (Oct. 25) if you live in those areas. 

This film was screened as part of New York Film Festival 2020.