“Nomadland is so original in its telling of a slice of American life that could easily have been mishandled. The awards are so well deserved and Frances McDormand gives a tremendous performance.”
- Billy Watson, Executive Commercial Director at Regent Street Cinema
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland is a serious achievement. It won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, as well as Best Actress for lead Frances McDormand and Best Director for Zhao. It was also awarded the BAFTA for Best Film, plus an entire trophy cupboard’s worth of other accolades – so many, in fact, that an entire standalone Wikipedia page had to be created for the “List of accolades received by Nomadland”. It’s safe to say, then, that the film is well regarded by critics.
What makes it so special? We’ll start with the plot, which is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a newly unemployed, recently widowed woman who decides to become a nomad – after selling most of her possessions, she buys a van and hits the road. On her travels, she meets and befriends fellow nomads who teach her how to survive their lifestyle. Initially woefully unprepared, she soon finds a community to help her pick up the skills she needs to take care of herself and her van… and, well, there are some other life lessons in there too.
That Best Actress Oscar is completely deserved, as McDormand gives the performance of a lifetime. She’s the anchor of the film, a fully realised character who’s endlessly fascinating to watch. It’s hard to imagine this film without her, and we can’t praise her enough.
At the same time, though, Fern’s story is only one of many. Zhao cast several real-life nomads (Charlene Swankie, Bob Wells, and Linda May) to play lightly fictionalised versions of themselves in the film, and their stories add a vital kind of depth and authenticity to the storytelling. Zhao isn’t just telling a story about the people living this type of nomadic lifestyle, she’s telling it with them. How many times have films – even films based on non-fiction books, as Nomadland is – glossed over true stories, adding so much Hollywood glitz that the real story got lost? Here, Zhao has been careful to avoid falling into that trap, and the film is all the better for it.
That feels important, too, because while the film emphasises the humanity of the people living a nomadic life in America, it also contains an inherent criticism of the forces that are increasingly leading people to living in their vehicles. The jobs that Fern takes in the film are hard work with low pay, meaning she can’t even always afford to service her van, let alone buy a house. In one of the richest countries in the world, it’s more than a little shocking to see how badly people can be treated, and how little security they’re offered.
Again, though, it’s important to stress how thoughtful and sensitive this film is. McDormand’s Fern is a listener, absorbing the stories of the people she meets on the road, and the film, too, feels like it’s observing, even pondering, never trying to speak over its characters. It’s beautiful as well, in a way that’s clearly calculated but feels almost offhand: the beauty is in the rolling landscapes, the wide-open skies, and those sunrises. Zhao’s style is naturalistic, using natural light and incidental sound, and yet that only enhances the beauty her camera captures.
Maybe the most important reason to see Nomadland is that it is ultimately a film about hope. It’s about kindness, about finding the goodness in people, and always, always holding on to hope. It’s the film we need right now.
Nomadland screens at Regent Street Cinema on Sunday 18 July as part of our Awards Season Encore.