Chloe Jhao is an enigma. A self confessed Manga, fantasy and sci-fi fan, her earlier movies are anything but fantasy. Though she seems to be changing that with Eternals for Marvel, the first movies, including Nomadland, are grounded in gritty reality. Nomadland is so real, it feels like a documentary at times. And it is by design. Jhao even chose real nomads to act in the movie and made them act as good as real actors. There is another reason Nomadland seems so real. It is based on a non-fiction book unlike most movies based on fiction books. The way Nomadland builds a script that marries the real aspects of things with imaginary aspects is the work of a skilled director. It reminded me of the skilled work of Arthur Penn, a pioneer in the American New Wave.
Nomadland belongs to Frances McDormand, who is the protagonist Fern. Fern is in her sixties and has lost her job in United States Gypsum. She chooses a van bound life working for Amazon’s camperforce. She is fiercely independent and proud of her nomadic life. It was McDormand who optioned the book, and described to Jhao what she wants Fern to be. As a result, Fern is in a way an extension of McDormand’s dreams of an alternate nomadic life. Fern seems to be perfectly at peace, is highly literate and self aware and faces all the difficulties of the nomadic life with the right attitude.
The movie stars some real nomads, including Linda May, Swankie and the iconic thought leader of the nomad movement, Bob Wells. Surprisingly, the amateur actors are very professional in their acting and the characters they play are really endearing. Swankie is especially very cool and stays with you.
The movie focuses on Fern’s character getting used to the nomad lifestyle, finding that the nomad lifestyle is not really homeless, it can be called “house-less”, nomads have their family, which is the extended family of global nomads. There is an angle of a special relationship Fern builds. She also builds several close relationships, like the one with Swankie.
There is a criticism that focuses on the fact that the movie focuses too much on the bliss of the nomadic life, ignoring some aspects like Amazon’s ill treatment of the camperforce workers. What these critics miss is that the objective of the movie is not to depict nomadic lifestyle transparently. The objective seems to be focused on building the character arc of Fern in the style of almost a coming-of-age movie. That’s why I say in the beginning that the movie belongs to McDormand, and she has done absolute justice to the focus on her. She is a brilliant actress, and she brings the character alive with focusing on all the subtleties of her character. The movie is worth a watch just for McDormand, and she completely deserves her third Oscar. I give the movie a rating of 4/5 and recommend a watch.