If we are lucky, we get a handful of films a year that feel truly and uniquely special. Sometimes it’s a plethora of films like in recent years (see 2017 and 2019). This year’s truly special film is Chloé Zhao’s, Nomadland. Zhao’s third feature-length film and is one of the most honest and intimate portrayals of America I’ve seen in some time. Nomadland first came into the public’s view in the Fall of 2020 as it made its rounds through the major film festivals. I was fortunate to first see Nomadland back in September through the virtual New York Film Festival, and ever since my first viewing of the film, I’ve found myself thinking about it at least once a week.
With the wide release of Nomadland this weekend, I was finally able to revisit it, and it remains as impactful, if not more so, than when I first watched it. Nomadland follows Fern’s (Frances McDormand) life, who loses her job and way of life amid The Great Recession in the United States. After losing her job in the now ghost town of Empire, Nevada Fern becomes a modern-day nomad, and the film follows her travels from place to place.
Nomadland excels in many areas. It is as technically sound a film that you can get without very many weaknesses. From the cinematography to the writing to the performances to the score, it is a beautiful film in nearly every way imaginable. What it does best, though, is it feels authentic. At times it feels like it transitions more into a documentary rather than a feature-length film. Now, a lot of this feeling comes from the fact that many actors are just everyday people and not actors who have appeared in other films. It feels like such a naturalistic and personal experience told through the film. This adds a lot to the authenticity of Nomadland and helps portray the issues like the epidemic of homelessness. It shows how people throughout the United States are living; it shows how people across this country are learning to survive day by day. It is nothing short of powerful.
I haven’t seen many films that feel this real and authentic. Maybe the fact that I, like many others, lived through The Great Recession adds to that authentic feeling. If this were a film centered around The Great Depression instead, it wouldn’t feel as real and natural. Maybe the fact that it tackles such a recent historical event makes the film feel personal and natural. I think it certainly helps the film feel more intimate and genuine.
Outside of the realness and beautiful portrayals of American life, Nomadland is a profoundly philosophical film. It tackles the ideas of life, death, goodbyes, and what home means. From the very start of the film, Nomadland tackles the concept of what home means. Fern has a quote that occurs at the beginning of the film where she says, “No, I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless, there’s a difference, right?”. This a significant theme throughout the film, which tackles the idea that sometimes our home is a place where we feel happy and at peace. It’s not the materialistic things that matter in one’s life, it’s what you do with that life. It’s what you make of what you have that matters. One of the more subtle nods to this is when Fern shows off her RV to another nomad and is so over-the-excited to show her how one of her drawers opens up and gives her more cabin space. It’s such a small thing to be happy about, but the joy feels so genuine. As an audience member, I felt giddy for how happy Fern was to show off this small detail in her RV. There are a ton of little moments throughout Nomadland where you Fern has these small emotions happen – it’s one of the things that makes this film so glorious.
The other philosophical aspect that shines throughout the film is the ideas it tackles, especially towards the end, with life, death, and goodbyes. As briefly mentioned before, this film is a lot about survival and how to make our lives important and ones of values. The last third of the film hammers the idea of life and death home. It talks so much about our goodbyes in life and how even when we say our final goodbyes to people, there is no actual finality with them. As the film states, we will see these being down the road. Whether it is in this life, or another we will see those we have lost again. It feels very spiritual from Zhao. Her storytelling style and the messaging that she uses for life and death feels like a page out of Terrence Malick’s book. It hits home the more I think about it, and with every subsequent watch, I think that messaging is going as profoundly moving as the first time I watched it.
Nomadland is a visceral and moving film. Each scene and frame is artfully crafted. It’s a film that is as mellow as a film can be, all while continuing to pack a punch through its themes and powerful storytelling. It has me excited for what Zhao will do next after she directs Eternals for Marvel. I hope she continues to make powerful films for a long, long time.
My Grade: A-