It’s a strange twist of fate that Nomadland would come out in 2020, what many consider the worst year in modern history. People said the same thing about 2008 when the global financial crisis was at its peak. Looking at the big picture, 2020 was worse than 2008 by a wide margin. Many of the situations are almost identical, however. People lost their homes, a controversial president was severing his final term, and Amazon was the one entity that seemed to come out unscathed. Nomadland picks up in 2011, a couple years after the crisis “ended.” Its effects were still felt, though. Likewise, we’ll be dealing with the damage of 2020 for years to come. In that sense, Nomadland manages to encapsulate the past, present, and future.
As depressing as that sounds, Nomadland is a beacon of hope. It’s a film that inspires us to persevere even during the darkest hour. It’s about finding your independence while also trying to create a sense of community. On the surface, it may seem like very little is happening. When you look closer, though, you’ll see life itself in full bloom. Something similar can be said about Frances McDormand’s understated performance, which will surely score her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
McDormand plays Fern, a woman who dedicated her life to marriage and work. After she loses her husband and job at a plant, Fern decides to leave everything else behind, including her home. She sells off most of her possessions. What she doesn’t sell, Fern packs into a van she purchases. She thus sets off on a cross-country adventure in pursuit of work and perhaps something more. Along the way, Fern finds friendship in several fellow nomads, including a possible love interest played by David Strathairn. Most of the individuals Fern comes across are real-life vandwellers, adding another level of authenticity to this deeply personal story.
Like any great film, Nomadland was a group effort, but it belongs to three principal players in particular. McDormand, who can conjure a plethora of emotions with a single expression. Joshua James Richards, whose breathtaking cinematography paints the American countryside with every color of the sunset. Above all else, this is Chloé Zhao’s baby. With her intimate screenplay, delicate editing, and all-encompassing direction, Zhao has further solidified her place as one of this generation’s most distinct voices.
The full title for the film’s source material is Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. It goes to show that the struggles these characters endure weren’t limited to the Great Recession. They resurfaced during the COVID-19 recession and chances are they’ll stretch even further. Not everyone will walk away stronger or even alive. By lending a helping hand to strangers, however, we may rebuild a society for future generations. The best way to describe Nomadland is bleak yet beautiful. As the credits roll, it’ll feel as if a better tomorrow is only a highway away. Of course, tomorrow isn’t the end and life is a open road.
Nomadland will be opening wide in theaters as well as on Hulu Friday, February 19.