It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Nomadland was going to win Best Picture, especially after it won both the Golden Lion at Venice and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto while the two festivals were happening simultaneously. Of course, the film also picked up Oscars for director Chloe Zhao and actress/producer Frances McDormand, making Zhao only the second woman ever to win Best Director and McDormand the second-ever woman to win three Best Actress Oscars. These are not standard-level plaudits, so it stands to reason that Nomadland as a film (it is originally based on a non-fiction book) is not your standard-level film. Honestly, however, I’m not sure if I would go that far with it. It’s good, well-made, and very pensive (which is its goal), but it’s not the sort of amazing that makes me think I would ever desire to watch it again.
McDormand here plays Fern, a 60-something worker in a mining town that ends up jobless after the mine closes shop and basically the whole town ends up folding as a result; her husband has also recently died to boot. With nothing left where she is, she puts all her belongings in a van, leaves her house behind, and proceeds to travel around, living life as a modern-day nomad; a lifestyle, she soon finds, that is not unique to her, and she soon falls into the familiar crowds of fellow wanderers, some of which help her personally and also to get better at the van life, all to see if she can find (or perhaps reclaim) some sense of purpose or value to her life. As aimless as that plot summary is, that’s exactly how the film itself comes off; there is really very little more to it than that. There’s a short subplot that develops about halfway through when one of Fern’s fellow nomads, Dave, takes a liking to her and invites her along with him back to his son’s place, who has recently had a child himself, and indeed the film seems to almost feel reluctant to include this aspect, almost as if the film is selling out a tad in order to fill itself out as a proper film. But this is literally the only actual narrative the film has; everything else is just about the life of these modern nomads and how they get by, the relationships they build (with each other and with the world around them), and the sense of fulfillment they have that was mostly or entirely lacking in their former lives. Indeed, almost every character in the film, save for Fern, Dave, and Dave’s family, is played by the actual nomads themselves, with almost every credit listed at the end being the nomad’s real name or nickname. There’s a good sense of authenticity this brings to the production, especially the couple or so nomads who have an actual supporting part in the film instead of just merely being featured, and that is really what Nomadland is about and for: for people to experience this lifestyle themselves, and what it means to the people who live it.
For as critically beloved as this film was going into the Oscars, I’m actually not surprised that it ended up winning as few as it did; indeed, Frances McDormand’s win here feels largely reputational and not because of the actual performance she gives. This has the overall feel of a minor film, that just happened to strike a chord with a good number of people in the cinephile sector; it’s a character piece that’s not about an actual character or archetype, but about a lifestyle, and as such, it’s not going to feel meaty or narratively dense, and neither should it. It’s well-directed, and I’m glad Zhao won her category, but that and the immersion into the life the film explores is about all I can say about it. It’s good, and a nice watch, but for me, anything more than that might be me forcing words out of my mouth when there’s otherwise no more to be had.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10