Before we see Chloe Zhao’s take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the delayed Eternals (tentatively set for a November 2021 release), we are very likely to see her name very much in the mix of whatever shape this year’s awards season ends up taking. With her most recent film, filmgoers are invited into a tale of human drama that thrives on a sense of genuine emotion and relationships. If she can bring that kind of sensibility to the canvas of a Marvel blockbuster, then audiences are going to be in for a treat. 

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman whose life has been greatly affected by the 2008 recession. With the economic collapse bringing an end to her life in a small corporate town in Nevada, Fern decides to hit the road in her van, exploring life as a modern-day Nomad, crossing paths with a number of people along her journey across the Great American West. 

Nomadland is very much a film that plays with the idea of narrative pretty loosely. Fern’s journey is made up of encounters with individuals played by those who actually do live the life of a Nomad, driving across the vast landscapes of the American wilderness, forging their own paths that don’t depend on small everyday luxuries many of us take for granted. It is an experience of human connection, as Fern becomes involved with the lives of the people she meets if only for the briefest moment of time. 

A story of making meaningful connections with kind-hearted strangers is something which feels all the more worthwhile in these current times we live in, times where moments of human interaction are, shall we say, somewhat limited. Though Fern does have a habit of only ever getting so close before feeling the need to pull back, there is the growing sense that she is forging a new community for herself in the wake of losing one she used to hold so dear. We also come to know and love many of those she meets along the way, making for a drama that subtly pulls on your heartstrings with its unassuming approach. 

Zhao’s editing weaves these interactions into a tapestry of a modern-day America made up of broken hearts and hopeful spirits. Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards ensure that they use the gorgeous landscapes at their disposal to incredible effect, placing these individuals in the real world, accompanied by the beautiful music of Ludovico Einaudi. 

They are also obsessed with the faces of their characters and how the pain of their experience comes through, even in moments of happiness. They have a wonderful lead actress in which to focus on as well, with McDormand putting across a performance of beautiful expression, stripped of any film star ego, and one that is exceptionally generous to both her seasoned and less experienced costars. For an actress who has had many great roles in her life, this is another that will undoubtedly be much celebrated by numerous award boards, as it so very rightly should. This is a filmmaker and star working entirely in sync, and it is a wonderful thing to witness.

Nomadland is a depiction of one kind of life that people end up leading when they have been forgotten by a system that they have come to realise was never working in their best interest. Despite this rather bleak fact, this is a very hopeful film, one that quietly celebrates the beauty of human connection amidst the often stark yet enchanting landscapes of the American West. It is a wide open country of scattered and discarded souls out there, and Zhao is keen to find a way to tell at least a part of their story. She does so in a fashion that is filled with soul and compassion, making Nomadland an intimate film that strikes a deep chord with heartfelt precision.An absolutely magical piece of work. 

Dir: Chloe Zhao 

Scr: Chole Zhao, based on ‘Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’

by Jessica Bruder

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

Prd: Frances McDormand, Peter Spears, Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Chloé Zhao

DOP: Joshua James Richards

Music: Ludovico Einaudi

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes 

Nomadland is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020 on October 16th and 17th. It is set to be released in UK cinemas from January 1st 2021. 

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