“Nomadland,” directed by Chloe Zhao, finally came out to be seen nationwide after what has felt like such a long build up. I first heard about “Nomadland” in August of last year, as it was being touted as the film to beat this awards season. With Chloe Zhao, director of the excellent “The Rider,” at the helm and starring Frances McDormand with her first leading role since her Oscar win for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” this film had been high on my watchlist for quite some time. It was originally set to hit theaters in November, but was pushed back to February to both qualify for the Oscars and allow for more eyes to see it. The film was also released on Hulu, which is how I watched it, but this film is definitely an experience I need to have in a theater.
The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a “nomad,” traveling by van through the American West, stopping in communities of other wanderers and meeting new friends along the way. The film takes place right after the housing crisis of 2008, setting the scene for what is a harrowing, yet heartwarming look at a lifestyle to which some have been forced to acclimate. Fern is just trying to get by. She constantly works handy jobs in an Amazon warehouse, cleaning community restrooms and as a line cook in a restaurant, all to sustain her van in which she lives.
Frances McDormand is a complete rockstar in this movie. I would say give her an Oscar now ,but this year sees some pretty stiff competition for Best Actress. It is such an understated and cheerful performance from McDormand that is a complete 180 from her role in “Three Billboards.” Fern has no problem getting along with others and making friends in these communities, which breathes life into a film that could feel very cold and boring. She befriends locals like Linda May and Swankie (both of whom were real nomads cast in the film) who are so authentically portrayed that, at times, I felt like I was watching a documentary. I rarely saw Frances McDormand because of how genuine and raw her interactions with everyday people were.
For about the first hour, “Nomadland” was my favorite film of the year by far. The slow pace, which is something I wouldn’t be a fan of to start a film, fit right in with the tone and environment Zhao was crafting. I felt completely at the mercy of the director, Zhao, pulling my emotions in just about every direction. It is perfect storytelling, as engrossing as the cinematography is stunning. I would go as far as to say that the first hour of “Nomadland” is perfect.
However, the film lost a little bit of its traction for me going forward. It is still great in its own way, but it starts to try and pick up the pieces of a narrative that was not really present in the first place. Fern has a past that she is still coming to terms with, but through the first hour, the knowledge of this past looms over each scene, adding a lot more context to who Fern is without completely revealing the information. As the film goes on, this information (which could have been assumed from the beginning) starts to come to the forefront of the film. It isn’t bad in the slightest, but it felt like a departure from the incredible slice-of-life piece that Zhao had established.
“Nomadland” was quite the treat. I did not expect to enjoy the film as much as I did, especially its first hour. The film delivers a strong performance from Frances McDormand and slow scenes of character building. I found the film at its very best when it was just being itself. The interactions with real nomads make the film feel so real that it does not feel like a piece of fiction that was crafted and adapted by a filmmaker, which is the biggest compliment I can give.