Oscars 2021 Review: Nomadland

Here’s a low-key drama that has been receiving near-universal praises ever since Beijing-born Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland made its world-premiere debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

In her third directorial feature following 2016’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2018’s The Rider, the film — inspired by Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book called Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century — follows the middle-aged widow Fern (Frances McDormand), who just lost her husband Bo and even her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada ceased operation. She sells most of her belongings and decided to hit the road, as she travels the country in her beat-up white van. Instead of finding a proper place to stay, she happens to live in a van as well. She takes up whatever seasonal jobs she can get in the likes of restaurants and at one point, Amazon warehouse to earn some cash and make friends with some of the fellow nomads and van-dwellers (among them includes Dave, played by David Strathairn).

Zhao, whose next directorial effort would be Marvel’s big-budget superhero ensemble Eternals (currently set for release in November 2021 at the time of writing), doesn’t rely on big or melodramatic moments to get her point across. Over the course of 108 minutes, Nomadland moves at a deliberate pace that takes its time to tell the story organically. Or more appropriately, Fern’s soul-searching journey across the American West told in a minimalistic manner that feels less traditionally story-driven but more of a slice-of-life drama surrounding the nomadic life.

Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) in "Nomadland" (2020)

While impatient viewers might blame the film’s lack of forward momentum as if everything is stuck in the circle, it’s hard to deny Zhao’s delicate and achingly beautiful filmmaking approach that reflects Fern’s bottled emotions. It’s clear that Fern has a tough time letting go and unable to move on and start a new life after her husband’s death. To her, time doesn’t heal the wound that she chose to quietly suffers all by herself, despite her strong-willed outlook. Although we did see her making friends while on the road, it’s all just fleeting moments and it’s back to square one again. Of course, none of this would have worked if not for Frances McDormand’s genuinely sympathetic, lived-in performance as Fern — easily her career-best performance since her 1984 debut in Blood Simple.

Back to Zhao, her decision to cast mostly non-professionals add authenticity to her film’s exploration of nomadic life, with McDormand and Strathairn (giving a perfectly understated supporting turn as Dave) being the only recognisable actors. Speaking of authenticity, Zhao also made the smart move opting for the cinéma vérité aesthetics minus the use of shaky-cam movements.

Equally deserving of praise is the way Zhao framing her subjects against the desolate, yet gorgeously shot landscapes — taking place in several US locations such as Arizona, Nevada and Nebraska — with kudos to Joshua James Richards’ sweeping cinematography. I have yet to check out her previous two films but Nomadland certainly proved Zhao’s remarkable talent as a filmmaker. It would be interesting whether she would make a successful transition from indie filmmaking to big-budget studio feature when her upcoming Eternals opens this November. 

Total Oscar nominations: 6 (Best Picture, Best Director – Chloé Zhao, Best Actress – Frances McDormand, Best Adapted Screenplay – Chloé Zhao, Best Film Editing – Chloé Zhao and Best Cinematography – Joshua James Richards)

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