It usually takes a second viewing for me to really know how I really feel about a film. In the case of writer/director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, my revisit found me welling up with tears throughout. That doesn’t happen to me very often, and I didn’t expect it to happen here. That response left little doubt in my mind that this beautiful work is my favorite film of the year.
Based on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder that chronicled the lives of “vandwellers” left behind by a crumbling economy, Nomadland frames its story around the fictional Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow who takes to the road after losing her company housing to the recession.
As she did in her first film, The Rider, Zhao populates Nomadland with non-actors, including nomads who featured prominently in Bruder’s book. That authenticity bleeds out of every frame, making the movie a magical blend of fiction and documentary.
McDormand is typically excellent, blending in with these modern-day pioneers seamlessly. I can’t imagine any other actress, let alone a major star and two-time Academy Award winner, pulling off the raw earthiness of this role.
While Nomadland serves as an exploration of the plight of the American underclass, it is far from a political film. It has been criticized for not taking a more critical stance toward Amazon, where Fern and her CamperForce comrades find seasonal work.
I love that Zhao simply shows those people at work — in conditions I’d hardly call favorable — and allows us to draw our own conclusions. These are real people, not fodder for an argument about corporate greed, and the film respects that.
Ultimately, I find Nomadland far more a film about grief and self-discovery. Fern is devastated by the loss of her husband, but also drawn to a new kind of life. Through breathtaking imagery of the American countryside, Zhao makes us understand that yearning to roam.
This is a film about loneliness, but also community. About a heart broken, but also a heart filled. It’s as intimate as a whispered conversation, but as epic as a mountain range at sunset. It’s the best film of a very strange and haunted year.