‘Nomadland’ Review: A Naturalistic, Poignant Visit to Another World

Hope is a theme that pops up a lot on the big screen. But most films aim to inspire hope, not explore characters who have lost their grasp on it. Nomadland — the latest film by director Chloé Zhao — dares to touch on the latter. The movie has been richly praised for its naturalistic style and emotional resonance. Now it’s on track to win some Academy Awards.

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'
Frances McDormand in ‘Nomadland’ | Searchlight Pictures

Chloé Zhao offers a delicate portrait of the nomadic sub-culture

In Nomadland, Fern (Frances McDormand) chooses to live as a nomad following the loss of her job and the death of her husband. Rather than reconnecting with loved ones, she lives out of her van, working odd jobs and moving from place to place. In doing so, Fern finds a community of people doing the same thing. And Zhao’s treatment of this way of life is the film’s strongest element.

Life as a nomad is completely foreign to the vast majority of viewers. It’s a subculture not often featured on the big screen, let alone in one that has gotten as much attention as Nomadland. So how Zhao handles it is key to what the film is trying to say. Instead of criticizing the nomads, she presents a fair but uncompromising understanding of how they live and why they choose this lifestyle.

With the help of some gorgeous imagery of the American West, Nomadland highlights both the allure of Fern’s life and its implicit struggle. In lesser hands, the movie’s portrayal of the nomadic life could have felt exploitative. After all, Zhao’s cast includes several real-life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves. But Nomadland strikes this delicate balance with reverence and curiosity, making it bonafide Best Picture material.

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Frances McDormand reaffirms she is 1 of Hollywood’s greatest talents

More than just a slice-of-life drama, Nomadland also functions as a compelling character study. By now, McDormand’s fearless commitment to her craft is well known. And her performance as Fern is easily among her most poignant work. Further demonstrating McDormand’s range, her Nomadland turn stands in stark contrast to her showier, Oscar-winning roles in Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

McDormand is surrounded by a strong supporting cast — including David Strathairn — but Nomadland rests on her shoulders. Fern is the vehicle through which viewers experience nomadic life. And as such, she needs to capture and convey both the argument for and against this lifestyle. If McDormand hadn’t only recently won her second Oscar, she’d likely be a lock for a win here.

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‘Nomadland’ is currently available to stream on Hulu

The 2021 awards season has been inevitably affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. So while streaming services were becoming more prevalent at the Oscars, this trend intensified due to the public health crisis. Fans curious in checking out Nomadland prior to the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25, 2021, need only log in to Hulu.

With six nominations, the movie is likely to walk away from the ceremony a winner. It currently stands as the odds-on favorite to scoop up Best Picture, according to GoldDerby.com. Moreover, McDormand fans won’t want to miss her work in the movie. And with Zhao entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Eternals, Nomadland leaves little excuse not to stop by.