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Nomadland (2020) | Review

by Toma Klusaite

Chinese director Chloé Zhao’s third feature film, Nomadland, this year’s winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, is a well-crafted melancholic poem to the nomad community of the American West. Starring the remarkable Frances McDormand, who deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Fern, and featuring real-life nomads Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells, the insightful drama draws attention to the definition of home and the ever-changing nature of life.

Based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film focuses on a middle-aged woman, Fern (McDormand), who starts a new life and becomes a modern-day nomad after her husband dies and she loses her job at a gypsum plant in the Great Recession. Living in a van and working temporary jobs, she considers herself to be “houseless” rather than “homeless.” Her friend and co-worker, Linda (Linda May), introduces Fern to the nomad community of the American West through which the woman makes new connections and gradually learns road survival skills such as changing a flat tire. Through shared experiences, she grows close with Swankie (Charlene Swankie), a fellow van-dweller who has terminal cancer, and Dave, a nomad who develops feelings for Fern and whom she encourages to finally reunite with his family.

Despite being sombre and melancholic, the film radiates positivity by showing genuine connections between the characters who look out for each other. It may seem that by foregrounding this aspect, Zhao neglects the inevitable negative sides of van life. However, this was the filmmaker’s intention.

Becoming the first woman of colour and the second woman in the history of the Oscars to win the award for Best Director, during her acceptance speech she said, ‘I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.’ The kindness and authenticity of people is a very significant facet of the film.

The theme of grief, loss, and mortality is one of the strongest aspects of Nomadland. In part, the film is namely about dealing with losses, healing, and accepting life as it is. Just like many other nomads, Fern chooses the van dweller's life after losing everything. She is grieving her husband, and the balance between solitude and togetherness is helping her to cope.

By telling the untold stories of personal losses, Zhao seems to be emphasising the fact that we all experience similar challenges and are thus connected.

Even though nomads are bound to constantly lose something, Nomadland shows that it is necessary to find a way to recover and to enjoy life to the fullest.

The outstanding performances of the cast, the breathtaking landscapes of the American West, the unobtrusive camerawork, and the Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi’s hauntingly beautiful soundtrack perfectly fit the poetic atmosphere of the film. The audience is instantly immersed in the unpredictable and uncertain yet extraordinary van dwellers life. Overall, despite feeling a bit too episodic at times and having no climax, Nomadland is a visually beautiful, well-acted film that touches upon the fleeting nature of life and our interconnectedness, making it an excellent choice for a calm evening.


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