Nomadland (2020)

This Venice Film Festival’s top winner beautifully captures the essence of the nomad community, showcasing their struggles, resilience, and the freedom they find in living off the grid. The film also won top awards at Oscars, Golden Globe and BAFTA

2/21/20246 min read

Frances McDormand and Linda May in 'Nomadland'
Frances McDormand and Linda May in 'Nomadland'

English, 108 mins, 2020

Director: Chloe Zhao

Cast: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Wells, Charlene Swankie

Awards: Won, Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, 2020; Won Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Nominated for Best Actress and Best Screenplay, Golden Globe Awards, 2021; Won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Nominated for Best adapted Screenplay and Cinematography, Academy Awards, 2021; Won, ‘Best International Direction’ and Nominated for Best International Film, Best International Screenplay, Best International Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, AACTA (Australian) Awards; Won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Nominated for Best adapted Screenplay, Editing and Sound, BAFTA Awards, 2021

Based on the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, 'Nomadland', is a poignant and introspective film that takes viewers on a captivating journey through the American West. The film follows the life of Fern, (Frances McDormand) who loses her job, as the ‘US Gypsum’ manufacturing plant at Empire, Nevada Shuts down. She along with her husband, who died recently, had worked there for years. With job and husband both gone, Fern sells most of her personal possessions, buys a van and hits the road in search of a job.

Fern’s reply, “I am not homeless, I am houseless” to a query about whether she needs a place to stay, tells us in essence the way society looks at campers- people who live and travel out of their own RV (Recreational vehicle). Fern takes a seasonal job at amazon during winters where she meets Linda May (who stars as herself), another camper and co-worker. She, after her gig ends, invites Fern to a rendezvous organized by Bob Wells (as himself) in Arizona desert. Though Fern declines initially, she eventually lands up there as she is unable to find work and excessive cold temperatures in and around that area. Bob Wells rendezvous is a congregation of fellow campers who gather and share experiences, learn basic skills for survival on road and exchange belongings. This film practically can serve as a guide to ‘camper’s life’. There she meets Swankie (as herself), another real life camper who reveals to her that she is suffering from cancer and she would like to spend her days more on road travelling, rather than on hospital bed. There Fern briefly meets Dave (David Strathairn), another camper and they dance together. As the rendezvous ends, campers depart to different ways.

Fern takes up her next temporary job as a camp host at the Cedar Pass Campgrounds in Badlands National Park, in south Dakota. Here she again meets Dave. Fern is cleaning her van and Dave in an attempt to help her breaks the glassware that she had. Fern is annoyed and asks him to leave. But as Dave falls ill suffering with Diverticulitis, a gastrointestinal disease, she takes him to hospital and looks after him for days after he has to undergo an operation. Later she and Dave both start working at ‘Wall Drug’, a restaurant. One day, Dave’s son visits him and asks him to come home as his wife is about to deliver Dave’s grandchild. Dave is reluctant but Fern urges him to go. He also asks Fern to come with him but she declines saying she will visit them later.

At one point, Fern’s van breaks down and she is saddled with big repair bills. Since she doesn’t have money, She asks her younger sister for it. Her sister asks her to come down. So Fern lands at her sister’s house in California. Fern’s sister one night asks her earnestly about why was she not there during their growing years when she needed Fern and why she did not leave Empire, Nevada even after her husband’s death. Fern has no answer in her defense. But her sister tells her she thinks Fern is brave and that she admires. She then gives her the money required for van repairs.

Fern then visits Dave at his son’s house. They all welcome her and Dave one day asks her to stay forever saying he has already asked his son about it and they are Ok with the idea. Dave’s wife too talks to Fern about it saying Dave likes to be around her. There is a beautiful and poignant scene where Dave plays piano along with his son at night with Fern observing them. However, Fern leaves them and visits Bob’s desert randezvouz where she learns that Swankie has died. All the campers pay tribute to her by tossing stones in the fore as Swankie used to like and collect stones. Bob philosophises his attitude towards the nomadic lifestyle in conversation with Fern by saying, "..There are no final goodbyes here.. so I tell them see you down the road...and I see them". Towards the end of the film, Fern returns back to Empire to dispose her remaining belongings and continues her journey on the road.

'Nomadland' is not just a story about one woman's journey; it is a meditation on the human spirit and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world. The film explores themes of loss, grief, and the pursuit of freedom, inviting viewers to reflect on their own lives and what truly matters. Frances McDormand delivers an exceptional performance as Fern, immersing herself in the character's quiet strength and vulnerability. Her portrayal is authentic and nuanced, capturing the complexities of a woman who chooses to live on the fringes of society. McDormand's ability to convey emotions through subtle gestures and expressions is truly remarkable.

One of the film's greatest strengths is its ability to humanize the nomad community, showcasing their individual stories and the sense of camaraderie that exists among them. The supporting cast, many of whom are real-life nomads playing fictionalized versions of themselves, bring an authenticity and depth to the film. Since this film moves like a documentary with real life people of same names narrating their experiences, going through those dialogues and then stitching the relevant ones at proper place would have been a giant task. Chloe Zhao as an editor has done a brilliant job and I am surprised she didn’t receive many awards for that because that is so crucial in a film like this. I liked cinematography too because of the way DoP (Joshua James Richards) took the long shots with people in it. Music does play a significant role in the film as it accentuates those lonely spaces we find so often throughout the film.

Chloé Zhao's direction is masterful, allowing the natural landscapes to become characters in their own right. The vast deserts, sprawling plains, and rugged mountains serve as a backdrop to Fern's journey, reflecting both the beauty and harshness of the nomadic lifestyle. 'Nomadland' challenges societal norms and prompts us to question our own definitions of success and happiness. It reminds us that there is beauty in simplicity and that sometimes, the greatest adventures can be found in the most unexpected places.

'Nomadland' is a cinematic masterpiece that deserves the accolades it has received. With its powerful true –to-life performances, Zhao creates a visual narrative that is both raw and poetic. Whether you are a fan of independent cinema or simply appreciate a compelling story, 'Nomadland' is a must-watch. The film ends with a beautiful sentence, “Dedicated to ones who had to depart…see you down the road”

About the director, Chloe Zhao

Born in March 1982 in Beijing, Chloe moved to Brighton College, England at the age of 15 for her schooling. Her parents lived in China. She then moved to Los Angeles in 2000 to get admitted at Los Angeles High School. After schooling she went on to graduate in 2005 with major in Politics and minor in Film Studies. However few years later she got disinterested in politics and she joined Kanbar Institute of Film and Television Graduate film program in 2010 at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. There she was taught by the talented director, Spike Lee.

She made her first short film, ‘The Atlas Mountains’ in 2009 before joining the film school. In 2010, she made her second short film ’Daughters’ which was about a 14 year old girl from rural China, forced into an arranged marriage. The film bagged ‘First Place Student Live action Short’ at Palm Springs International Short Fest, 2010 and ‘Special Jury Prize’ at ‘Cinequest Film festival’, 2010.

Zhao made her first feature film in 2015 titled, ‘Songs My Brother Taught Me’. The film focuses on the relationship between a brother and his sister living at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film was shot at actual location of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with lot of real people playing themselves in the film just like in the present film, ‘Nomadland’. The film had documentary styling and was premiered at Sundance Film Festival, 2015. It later was shown at Cannes Film Festival as part of its ‘Directors Fortnight’ Selection. It also received nomination for ‘Best First Feature Film’ at the Independent Spirit Film Awards.

Her second film was ‘The Rider’, made in 2017, depicts a young cowboy’s dilemma when a fatal head injury jeopardizes his professional riding career. Interestingly, the lead role was played by real life cowboy who suffered a severe head injury in a rodeo competition whom Chloe had met during her shoot of first film. This film was premiered at Cannes Film Festival as part of its ‘Directors Fortnight’ Selection. It was also feted at other film festivals.

Her present film is based on Jessica Bruder’s book ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First century’. Like her earlier films this film too incorporates real life characters giving it a feel of docu-drama. The film scored big critically as well as at Box office receiving more than 100 awards at various film festivals including Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA. Sadly, this film was not theatrically released in China, reportedly because of her critical comments earlier.