If you’re someone who follows the world of cinema, you’ve heard of Nomadland – this staple of best-of-2020 lists from Chloé Zhao became the first film to ever win the top prizes at both Venice and Toronto and has smashed the awards circuit so far. Yesterday, it finally became available for public viewing, releasing simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu. It was, at least for me, worth the wait. It is beautiful, engrossing, and deeply moving. If I see Nomadland written on the marquee when my local movie theaters reopen, I will not hesitate to walk in and buy myself a ticket. That I couldn’t see it on the big screen the first time around is a matter of small heartbreak.
Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s film explores the post-recession phenomenon of older Americans choosing to live out of vans, trailers, and RVs and work seasonal jobs across the country. Though the film’s narrative focuses on the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand), who becomes a Nomad after a factory closure dissolves her Nevada town, the cast is mostly non-actors playing versions of themselves. The film is genuinely interested in understanding these people and their way of life; the pain that drives up their roots, the breadth of experience that keeps them roaming, and the natural beauty that lines their unending road.
Through the delicate study of Fern as she finds her place in this new world, Zhao shares this understanding with us, and McDormand’s performance here (surprise, surprise) is nothing short of remarkable. Not only is she tasked with realizing her own character (the depth and nuance of Fern’s feelings are at every moment clear and affecting), but she must manage the gap between her and the real-life nomads, who have genuine experience to draw on but lack her toolkit for presenting that experience to the camera. They succeed in appearing natural in part because she tailors her performance to them, until professional and non-professional are virtually indistinguishable, leaving only human behavior behind. Zhao deserves substantial credit for shepherding her cast into this comfort-zone, but as with Willem Dafoe in 2017’s The Florida Project, Nomadland exemplifies how placing the right veteran among the people who live the film’s reality can elevate the entire experience.
This is especially true when the director is as willing as Zhao to forsake flash in favor of giving her subjects careful attention. Her style feels like one intended to remove any obstacle between character and audience while dictating as little about how we should engage with them as possible, and the result is a film rich with meaning. There’s room to read Nomadland as a political indictment of a society that makes wanderers out of its retirement-age workers, or as a generic reworking of the Western. You can let yourself be wrapped up in its human drama or focus on taking in the stunning natural imagery. However we choose to approach this new world, she only asks that we do it with empathy, so that come away marked by the experience. This is no difficult task – Nomadland is so emotionally involving that not empathizing is virtually unimaginable. I may not have seen it in time to put it on my “Best of 2020” list, but expect to see it again when it comes time to rank the “Best of 2021.”