Chloé Zhao directs Nomadland, a remarkable and moving story of loss and how it affects those left behind.
It is told through the travels of Fern, acted brilliantly by Frances McDormand, who adopts a nomadic lifestyle in the American mid-west following the death of her husband. Nomadland addresses the capitalist system, with its coldly churning gears, and shows other options that can emphasise community and humanity.
Fern doesn’t know how to process the loss of her husband or where she belongs, the latter being a dilemma faced by most at some point in life. She went from living in a committed relationship and working a job she enjoyed to losing that relationship and, subsequently, that job. She finds herself suddenly free and completely rudderless. She faces ridicule and pity when she encounters those she used to be close with, and the film asks the audience: at what point did we normalise a dependence on possessions to justify our existence?
Fern gets a job at Amazon, the epitome of capitalism, and befriends Linda (Linda May), a woman truly the salt of the earth, showing that these enormous corporations comprise of real human beings. When she later leaves Amazon and enters a nomadic community in the desert (at Linda’s behest), the emphasis is placed on community, kindness and understanding; people are given gifts and help by strangers who have no obligation to do so. There is a glorious hope for humanity laid out in direct contrast with the cold, capitalist vortex that so much of modernity has become.
Frances McDormand is fantastic; her eccentricities, lovability and relatability jump off the screen. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the movie shines a loving light on the mid-west and its inhabitants. The rolling desert plains and winding roads create an atmosphere of gentle contemplation that stays with you long after the credits roll. The compassion of the people she meets in her travels, the kindness passed on and around, swirling cyclicly through the movie, is beautiful. Zhao cast the film with a mix of actors and real nomads, and the resulting script is overwhelmingly genuine.
These are real people without frills or delusions of grandeur, just experiences and beating hearts. The treatment of grief in the film is mature and nuanced. It discusses insightfully the human desire to be remembered and the obligation felt to remember. You’re brought along with Fern as she travels from place to place, processing her loss, gradually coming to terms with it. The film is sad and hopeful and lays a lovely roadmap for those caught in similar emotional situations.
Nomadland is the story of a woman changing her life drastically, renouncing her possessions and hitting the road to be alone with, and a part of, her own life. It is also the story of a failed system and carries the message that happiness does not depend on things. It does not come with money; instead, it comes with humanity, kindness and adventure.
Frances McDormand nicknamed the van used in the film “Vanguard,” which she decorated with her own personal items and slept in during the shoot. Eventually she stopped doing so because “it’s much better for me to pretend to be exhausted than to actually be exhausted,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.