'Nomadland' has been nominated for Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards and locked the frontrunner status for this year's race, having previously scooped the top prizes at both Venice and Toronto
‘Nomadland’ features a growing subculture of 60-something van-dwellers, brought to life by Fern (Francis McDormand) and her itinerant friends played by real-life nomads, traveling across the American West in search of employment, shelter and community. It is a piercingly humane portrayal of life in the wake of the Great Recession, reluctantly embraced by a dying middle-class that is falling through the cracks of a rigged system.
Characters in Chloe Zhao’s third feature, ‘Nomadland,’ often allude to the resemblance between the great American pioneers and the van-dweller community. Are the modern-day nomads thus one step ahead of everybody else, having seen through the American dream? Or are they the mere casualties of its broken promise – abandoned and swiftly brushed aside? The film depicts them as both. The victim as well as the visionary, the hopeless romantic as well as the perennial pessimist - healing yet broken; free yet forgotten.
Fern, a recently widowed, childless Nevada resident, wakes up to her life in tatters. Her loving husband is gone; yet she cannot part with her wedding ring; her savings are lost or at best inadequate to suit her new reality after her long-time employer US Gypsum plant had shut down in the company town Empire, Nevada, leaving a ghost town in its wake. She packs her belongings in a newly purchased, second-hand van, and drives across the country for seasonal work. And just like that, Fern becomes ‘houseless’ and runs into a growing community of like-minded nomads who refuse to call themselves homeless.
The film follows Fern and her friends over the course of a year as they find temporary work at restaurants, sugar beet processing plants, campgrounds and Amazon to make ends meet. During much of the film, they quietly mourn what has been lost – families, status, the illusion of financial security, or the belief that anyone can make it in America – adding a twist to a story about people hitting the road, typically laden with thrills and life-affirming epiphanies.
Fern continues to brandish her wedding ring to stave off potential love interests and insists on calling herself married – refusing to move on from her late husband’s death. She passes time by staring at faded yellow-hued pictures from her childhood, taking care of old dinnerware sets that she inherited from her family, and reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet by memory. So much of ‘Nomadland’ is about what has been let go or taken away, ruminated during a journey of Fern and others towards the tomorrows; the endless, breathtaking vistas of the American West.
While grief looms large in the background for these older Americans, ‘Nomadland’ is far from a tearjerker. And it is never about one thing. While for some RVers, the road is the last place they can turn to after losing everything in the unwinnable battle between flat wages and rising house rents in 21st century America; for others, it is a temple, a place for unapologetic healing and growth.
Frances McDormand, two-time Oscar winner, who is well known for taking on challenging and at times showy roles, delivers an incredibly understated performance here that only an actor of her stature could have pulled off at this point of her career with such ease. Not only is she brilliantly underplaying her own character, but also drawing out memorable performances from a largely non-professional cast. In many ways, she is the glue that holds the film together, the fire around which everyone gathers.
A brief glance at Chloe Zhao’s previous films ('Songs My Brother Taught Me', 'The Rider') which also featured non-actors, explains why ‘Nomadland’ was able to successfully blur the line between fiction and documentary. This is a director in her own element, doing what she does best. With the effortless lyricism of her camerawork in this film, Zhao is what Terrence Malick could have been if he were not so terribly self-indulgent.
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It is quite telling how ‘Nomadland’ – a film about inequality that attempts to shed light on the fact that 40% of Americans are only one paycheck away from homelessness – continues to dominate film festivals and award ceremonies and is a clear frontrunner in the Best Picture race for Oscars 2021 (Unless of course, the Academy indulges in a healthy dose of self-love again and gives the award to another film about Hollywood, ‘Mank’), and yet a $15 minimum wage provision, supported by majority of Americans did not make it into Joe Biden’s recent Covid-19 stimulus package.
Despite the universal acclaim Chloe Zhao's film was instantly met with, it is important to point out that the film is in fact apolitical to a fault and often betrays its source material - journalist Jessica Bruder's book 'Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" - namely with its kid-gloves treatment of the e-commerce giant, Amazon.
Ageing nomads walk 20 miles a day on concrete floors at Amazon’s warehouses, suffer from plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, stress injuries, trigger finger condition and other illnesses, and have no benefits or the time to unionize due to the seasonal nature of their employment. The online retailer’s such exploitation of the senior Americans is largely absent from Zhao's adaptation, in which at one point Fern says, unironically, that Amazon pays 'great money', whereas in the book, the protagonist calls the company "probably the biggest slave owner in the world." If we are being honest, then we need to take into account what 'Nomadland' talks about as well as what it doesn't talk about.