“See you down the road.”
“Not all who wander are lost.” A sentiment of inspiration for some, but no statement rings truer in Chloé Zhao’s, Nomadland. This visually stimulating film examines the modern-day nomadic lifestyle through the eyes of our protagonist. With her contact with real-life nomads, the film questions the meaning of our life choices, and where the road may inevitably lead us.
Based on the book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland tells the story of Fern, a woman in her 60s who finds herself without a job after the Great Recession of 2008. Fern turns to life as a modern-day nomad, traveling from place to place, and job to job. Fern is the protagonist in our story, but she is — more importantly — our guide. With Fern’s help, we are able to take a look into this nomadic world that so gently surrounds our own reality. With the majority of the people who come into contact with Fern being elderly men and women, the aging rocks, trees, and overall midwestern backdrop of Nomadland, paints a wonderful comparison to the aging humans within the film who still have so much beauty and wisdom to share with this world.
Frances McDormand, who plays Fern, and who is also one of the producers of the film, wasn’t always attached to play this character. In fact, the story was going to follow another woman you’re introduced to in the film. But the more McDormand became invested in the project, the more her involvement in the acting side just felt right. McDormand gives a powerful and organic performance. Her demeanor, the way she interacts with the other nomads, it never feels forced. It’s almost as if every interaction, every heartfelt look, is absolutely genuine. McDormand naturally falls into this world as the characters around her are some of the real-life people within the pages of the book. Nomadland feels like this story was always supposed to be told with McDormand as this character.
Zhao comes off her recent success with The Rider, and her directing style goes hand in hand with Nomadland. The nomadic lifestyle is perfectly detailed within Zhao’s lens, but more importantly, she listens to the stories that these people have to tell. Not only is their present situation of living from place to place told within these scenes, but their past, what led them here, and where they’re wanting to go next. Zhao’s passion for human beings threads like a needle throughout the film — tying together the pieces of the story. The film does a wonderful job of incorporating the scenery Fern finds herself in. The beautiful work from Zhao, in addition to the cinematography from Joshua James Richards, will take your breath away.
The biggest question, aside from the social commentary, which hits us like a ton of bricks, is what outcomes do we have in our life as a result of us the decisions we’ve made. If anyone has ever had that fire inside of them, that want for something else, Fern is relatable in that regard. We make these decisions, and at times feel like we’re tied to this for the rest of our lives. But even though we may try to snuff out the flame, we still crave that dream we’ve always had.
Nomadland is by far one of the best films to come out of this year’s festival circuit. With an amazing film such as this, it looks like nominations are in store for Zhao, McDormand, cinematography, and best picture. Zhao and McDormand’s fantastic collaboration sheds a thought-provoking light on the modern-day nomad, while also showing us the humanity in the people that continue to live this life.
Written & Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Frances McDormand and David Strathairn