by Angelina Hu
If you’ve wandered beyond the confines of fandom social media lately, you’ve probably heard of this movie. Generally, the first thing people learn about Nomadland is that it’s directed by Chloé Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, making her the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best director. In addition, the movie landed itself best picture and lead actress Frances McDormand won best actress for the third time. So how good is the movie, exactly, when the accolades are more relevant than the actual plot? And, if I daresay, how exactly did it win so many awards?
Well, one question at a time. First of all, there isn’t a definitive “plot” to this movie. And I don’t mean that as a shortcoming; it’s not supposed to have one. Nomadland takes place after the Great Recession, in around 2011. Fern (Frances McDormand), our main character, has recently lost her job and her husband died. Unable to find new work, she decides to become a nomad– a person who lives in their vehicle and travels, picking up temporary jobs wherever they go.
She goes with her friend to a rendezvous in the middle of Arizona, where she learns the ways of nomad life from the other nomads there. The movie then chronicles her traveling across the country, reuniting by coincidence with people from the rendezvous on occasion as she explores her devotion to this nomadic lifestyle. The movie’s nature of showing the bonds and emotions of humans is the point, rather than a typical bell-curve exposition to climax to resolution story arc. That kind of “standard” presentation would probably ruin the whole thing, actually.
What’s even more interesting about the movie is that many of the various nomad characters, like Linda May, Bob Wells, and Charlene Swankie, are actually real-life nomads who played themselves, not even courtesy of a name change. In addition, the Arizona rendezvous in the movie, run by Bob Wells, actually does exist (Rubber Tramp Rendezvous)! It’s a fantastic decision to actually cast these people to represent their own culture and minority. It’s part of what helped bolster this movie up into the Oscars–the representation in the movie, featuring many real, elderly nomads, is extremely unique.
In addition, the movie presents us with two big themes: one, there are never any “final” goodbyes, and two, home is what you decide it is, and is not always bound to a house or another person.
The first one is shown throughout the movie. Fern and her friend Linda (the one who took her to the rendezvous) part ways and say goodbye only to meet up again quite soon and share workplaces. The guy she offers a cigarette and lighter to at the rendezvous runs into her in a completely different state. Dave (David Straithairn), who dances with her once, is–without any major spoilers–really in and out of the film.
But the point stands; every time she says goodbye, she always inevitably runs back into that person. The message is really emphasized at the end of the movie, where Fern and Bob talk about the concept in a heart-to-heart. It’s a lovely message, and one that fits the seemingly lonely lifestyle of these nomads who never have any stable anchor in their travels other than themself. Don’t be sad when you part ways; remember the memories you made with that person, and move on until you run into them again.
That leads to the second message the movie conveys: home is what you decide it to be. These people do not have a house, clearly, nor people they tie themselves to. At the very beginning of the movie, Fern says, “I’m houseless. That’s not the same as being homeless, right?” She also states several times that her van is her home. Even though her home moves with her and she lives alone, she’s content with this life, because it’s the path she’s chosen to take.
Overall, the movie isn’t bad. It gives off a very homesick vibe to the viewer, and if you fear being alone, then you’ll probably feel drained by the end. The setting changes rapidly, from the cold town Fern attempts to find work in, to the desolate Arizona desert to the rocky expanse of the Badlands National Park and the ocean under a grey storm. This lack of stability and the variety of sets as we follow Fern’s travels makes the viewer, too, feel detached, moving from place to place in this little van. The soundtrack only adds to the lonely, desolate nature. Fern singing to herself, all alone and acapela as she drives, especially hits hard right in the feels.
However, it’s quite touching in its portrayals of starkly human characters who are just seeking a better life for themselves after hardship–the people who have been thrown out by “normal” society, so to speak. The themes mentioned earlier are consistent and easily identifiable. However, the pacing, even while recognizing that there is not supposed to be a normal plot, can sometimes grow a little slow. These mundane scenes do pronounce the idea that these are normal people, but some of them drag on in my personal opinion. Otherwise, all things considered, I’d give this film a solid 4/5.
It’s clear to see why this movie is so deserving of its three Oscars. Zhao’s direction of the movie is great, considering its purpose as a raw and touching human story more than a plot-oriented tale; scenes of human bonding become precious and rare as Fern travels enough to not have a stable social circle, and yes, that does include all the little mundane everyday moments. Also, the casting of real-life nomads is a very smart move– let the people with experience tell their tales.
As for lead actress, McDormand brilliantly portrays the imperfect and normal character of Fern, showing her to not be anyone special or fulfilling cliche “protagonist” criteria; instead, she’s just another nomad with everyday imperfections like bad knees and a slight distaste for people who live in houses and spend all their money on paying off mortgages. It’s clear we’re just following her life as she lives it.
And finally, all of these things together helped this movie win best picture. It’s the feeling it evokes in viewers–that sense of solitude, just like the main character. Even if you find the movie boring, you’ll still walk away with a hollow feeling of loneliness.
However, I believe the true keystone to this victory is something else entirely–the climate of the past year. After all the stresses of 2020 in quite possibly every way, this touching story of normal humans living their lives and overcoming hardships is exactly what the audience needs. We don’t need something with a political message, or an action movie thriller to finally give all our collective hearts the last kick it needed to die of stress; we needed this movie, one that makes us reflect and think about the nature of living life. That’s exactly why Nomadland emerged victorious this 2021 Oscars.