Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ deserving Oscar front-runner

Two-time Best Actress Academy Award Winner Frances McDormand (‘Fargo’) is the lone professional actress in ‘Nomadland.’ McDormand is joined by real-life nomads in the film. // Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Our Take: 4 Stars

During an unprecedented year, many films have suffered from delayed releases and closed theaters, making it easy to overlook the films that remain. Many of the “biggest and most anticipated films of 2020” have not come out yet, two months into 2021. As a result, many people are expecting this year’s Academy Awards to be weak in comparison to previous years.

This expectation is false. The current frontrunner, Chloé Zhao’s (“The Rider”) “Nomadland,” based on a book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, is a uniquely pensive film that can hold its own against any competition.

And hold its own it has. The film has already won over 85 awards this season, including 50+ for writer-director Chloé Zhao. Zhao is by far the winningest person this award season, and critics are predicting a successful Oscars night for Nomadland.

All this awards season hype is not for nothing, either; “Nomadland” deserves every award it has received.

Technically “Nomadland” is flawless. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction masterful and the editing exemplary. But there is more to it than impeccable execution. Every aspect of the film is intentional.

Every shot and every moment of the film is planned out in minute detail and executed with a precise purpose. With this kind of purposefulness and attention to detail, the film becomes an immersive experience to the point that the viewer cannot separate the events occurring on screen from the viewing experience.

Apart from the technical aspects of filmmaking, “Nomadland” is harder to analyze. It is a very different kind of movie from any of this year’s other releases and in addition, it is very different from the typical films made for general release in the United States.

Chloé Zhao takes a great deal of influence from her Chinese heritage and the style of other Eastern Asian auteurs, and crafts a film that, like its subject matter, is not fully rooted in one place. Blending influences from multiple sources helps Zhao to craft a stronger, more complex story, and the blended filmmaking styles mirrors the blended culture of America.

“Nomadland” is a film seemingly without a plot that is by design very slow and pensive. It is not a story, but rather an intimate and startlingly accurate portrait of the people who society has left behind and who have, in turn,
left society.

In keeping with Zhao’s previous work, many of the film’s characters are portrayed by non-professional actors — in this case real life nomads. Far from detracting from the film, this provides a sense of reality to “Nomadland” that in many ways gives it the feel of a documentary.

Central in the portrait is Fern, a woman who began living out of her van, named “Vanguard,” after the death of her husband and the loss of her job. Frances McDormand steps into the role and provides a true masterclass in dramatic poetry.

The two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner (“Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) gives a performance that rivals her best, and creates a delicately intricate and moving performance.

The film spends so much time on the positive aspects of van dwelling, that in moments it neglects some of the grim realities of the film.

The viewer is shown so many people that have chosen this life that the harsh reality that so many people are forced into it is almost neglected.

There are hints of desperation, but Zhao never truly explores it. The only highlights of this grimmer side come from Fern herself. If Fern is taken out of this film, the entire tone of the film shifts to a much more positive light.

But Chloé Zhao crafts the character of Fern to remind us in subtle ways the painful and dark realities facing so many people living the #vanlife. Fern is a ghost, living without a place to belong and unable to become close with other people. She cannot move on from her own life and truly exist apart from life.

This “Nomadland” deserves all the accolades that have come its way. While it might not be a film for everyone, it offers a pensive look into society that is well worth the watch. The experience will be truly mesmerizing and will have a lasting impact even after the credits roll.