By Rebecca McClaine
Copy and Line Editor
With Oscar season upon us, “Nomadland” has gotten a lot of attention with six nominations, including Best Picture. But is the film worth the hype?
If you are picturing a romanticized tale of characters crisscrossing the country while living in the back of a psychedelic-painted van, taking odd jobs and meeting fascinating strangers, you’re going to be disappointed.
Based on a book of the same name, “Nomadland” is an unapologetically gritty, heart-wrenching look at personal loss, grief and perseverance.
Frances McDormand plays Fern, a sixty-something-year-old woman who is virtually alone and down on her luck. After her husband dies and the town she is living in is abandoned, Fern is left to pick up the pieces to figure out what to do next, by living in her van in the Midwest.
Director Chloé Zhao was nominated for Best Achievement in Directing as well as Film Editing, and Josh Richards, nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography, captured scenery that is not only breathtaking but adds layers to the film.
Zhao pits McDormand’s Fern against harsh winters, framing her perfectly amid bleak, virtually soundless environments, wandering alone, capturing her tired determined nature.
At other times, we find Fern framed against a blooming desert; sun rising over distant mountains, smiling and hopeful as her prospects change, giving different meaning to the same viewpoint and framing not only Fern’s job situation but her loneliness and uncertainty at the time.
The opening scene sets the tone for the entire film. Fern is at a storage container trying to decide what items she can keep with her in her van. Though no dialogue is spoken until the unit is shut, McDormand does a great job showing the struggle that Fern is going through, pausing to stare at items and hugging an old pair of jeans.
The bleak winter atmosphere is made more depressing by the washed-out tones, adding to the mood. When the scene ends, the storage building proprietor gives Fern an emotional hug and wishes her luck before the camera pans back, and Fern drives off into the distant hills on her new journey.
This isn’t the same McDormand from Fargo. Fern is depressed and, at times, a worn out and hollow woman. She is also determined to make van life work, finding joy in small accomplishments. At the same time, she is naïve about the nomadic lifestyle yet reluctant to let people help her or get too close to her.
Fern is far from a perfect character—I was often left wondering why she makes the choices she does, but McDormand held my attention. She owns the character—from the no-nonsense, minimalist lifestyle to the standoffish yet pleasantly persevering charm. I couldn’t help but root for Fern.
McDormand manages to maximize emotion and make every movement and look count with quiet determination, emotional breaks and contemplation. McDormand earned her Oscar nomination with this performance and Chao deserves credit for the up-close-and-personal directing style that makes you feel like you are right there with the character.
Though Fern is alone much of the film, she does meet a wide array of people, who either reluctantly help the naïve woman when she is in a jam or gladly do so when she isn’t, often with pushback from Fern. Some are dealing with the same repercussions of the economic collapse of the early 2010s or are dealing with other loss and grief, similar to Fern.
The movie does nothing to glorify the life Fern is living, and the emotional scenes as other characters reveal what they are going through were often tough to watch but added to the depth of the film and perspective for what Fern was going through.
Fern’s journey isn’t a walk in the park. We see her at her worst, lashing out at people trying to help her, yet at her best, she stands amidst the majesty of nature and appreciates all that is around her. Zhoa takes us along on all of Fern’s struggles, physical and emotional.
Fern’s journey is one of re-discovering who you are and what is important to you in the midst of terrible loss and grief. McDormand and Zhoa bring the tale to life through incredible acting and masterful directing, making “Nomadland” one Oscar-nominated film worth checking out.