The pandemic of 2020 left a major impact on the film industry as a whole, but one of the least consequential effects is it’s impact on Hollywood’s desire to still honor the films of the past year. Awards season, despite being mostly done remotely, has been going off without a hitch. The one big difference of course is the much more sparse slate of choices from the last year, as most of the major studios pushed back their biggest contenders to later this year, with the hope that cinemas can return to normal business soon. The Oscars and the Golden Globes did grant an extended period of eligibility for movies this year, with the cutoff date being the end of this month, which means that the public is just now getting the most likely contenders for the big prize nearly two months into the new year. It’s a concession that we are unlikely to see happen again, as it’s likely that Oscar Season will tighten up again next winter, but it is interesting to see how the Academy adjusted it’s rules so quickly to adapt to these extraordinary times. Strangely enough, last year’s Oscars happened just before the pandemic moved into full swing, and was one of the last mass gathering events to happen before the lockdowns began. Though the Academy made the moves in the hopes that they could continue to hold a traditional in-person ceremony, that seems very unlikely as the pandemic is still raging in some parts of the country, including Hollywood itself, and holding a big mass gathering ceremony at this time would be irresponsible. But, what we are still likely to see at this year’s Oscars is a lot of historic firsts thanks to the lack of competition from the major studios opening the door for independent movies coming from a diverse set of new and exciting voices.
One of the neatest things to have come out of the Awards circuit of 2020 so far has been the dominance of movies coming from groups otherwise overlooked by the Academy. People of color are likely to see representation among the nominees at this year’s Oscars more than any year past, and that will be quite a gamechanger for Hollywood. One of the historical milestones that we might see occur this year is the first time every acting category will have at least one POC in the running in the same year, with even an outside chance of sweeping as well. And that kind of diversity even extends in other categories as well. We may see a record number of women nominated for directing this year. Keep in mind, there has never been a year where there has been more than one woman director nominated at a time, and in the 93 year history of the awards, only one woman has won the Directing Oscar; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), and that was well over a decade ago. It’s too bad that history at the Oscars seems to only be possible if Hollywood stays out of the way, but even still, the Awards are long overdue in giving out these kinds of honors. And the reason I spotlight this is because emerging out of the Awards season so far has been the unlikeliest of front-runners. Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has thus far become the most honored Director of the year with her new film Nomadland. If she were to carry her momentum all the way to Oscar night, her win could really mark a turning point for a lot of other rising filmmakers from other underrepresented backgrounds. The question is, now that Nomadland is finally making it’s debut to the public audience, is it a movie worthy of all the hype it had received thus far.
The movie Nomadland takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where many small communities faced the harsh reality of economic hardship when the industries that once kept them afloat suddenly went bankrupt. That is the situation that a middle aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) has found herself in. The town that she lived in suddenly became unincorporated by the state of Nevada after the closure of the Gypsum mine dried up all the jobs that kept the community afloat, and this came after Fern lost her husband to a long battle with Cancer. Instead of moving back in with family or finding a new home somewhere else, Fern instead converts an old delivery van into a mini-mobile home, taking all her worldly possessions with her on the road. She soon joins a community of modern day nomads, all of whom help each other adjust to living on the road, finding odd jobs along the way, and exchanging goods through swap meets. Fern develops a friendships along the way, but a part of her always keeps people at an arms length, preferring solitude over long term attachments. This aspect of her personality is challenged once she meets another fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), who has been flirting around with her for some time. She does develop a special bond with Dave, especially when they work for a time in the same kitchen of a restaurant. But, once Dave is called back to be with his family during an important time, it forces Fern and Dave’s budding relationship to be tested. In this experience, Fern confronts what kind of life she believes she is destined to live, and how she can square that with the necessities of life constantly being a daily challenge. Through it all, she tests her resiliency for independence, despite the promising invites to settle down and live quietly once again. Thus is the life of a nomad, and Fern discovers through heartache and triumph if it’s the true life for her.
For Nomadland to emerge as an Awards season frontrunner is kind of a strange thing to witness. The movie is a very quiet, low key tone poem of an experience that doesn’t exactly scream out for recognition. It’s quite a change from your typical Oscar bait movie, which usually wants to notice how important it is. Nomadland is, by contrast, a very unassuming movie. It’s the kind of film that you would stumble across in an art cinema or late night or scroll past on a streaming platform without much thought, and yet still find it an absorbing experience. That’s why it’s so weird that it is not only doing well in the run up to the Oscars, it’s dominating. The movie took home two major honors already that are bell weathers of the Oscars, which are the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival. Considering other Oscar juggernauts like Green Book (2018), Roma (2018), and Parasite (2019) have rode the festival honors to eventual big wins, it stands to reason that Nomadland is going in this year as the film to beat. So, it becomes a little unfortunate that I was ultimately underwhelmed by the movie itself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t grab a hold of me in the same way that other movies up for the major awards have in the past. In a way I feel like the hype behind the movie did it a disservice and raised the bar too high to live up to. I came into this movie expecting to be blown away by a modern masterpiece, and instead I found it to be a charming if a bit too languid of a movie to go on raving about. Perhaps it’s just a first impression thing, and I may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate the movie as a whole. But, going off of my first impressions, I’d say temper your expectations, because a game-changer that will shape cinema for years to come this ain’t.
Some of the response to the movie may be determined by the overall feelings one gets from the story itself. Based on a novel from Jessica Bruder, and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao herself, The movie is overall a very intimate portrait of these people and the life that they lead. One of the most interesting aspects of film is that it does break down exactly what modern nomad life is actually like, and it doesn’t pass judgment on these people either. It removes the stigma of these people being transients or homeless. The nomads in this movie have chosen this life purposely, and are content living on the road. They work, earn money when they can, support each other, give back whenever someone has handed something out to them. As Fern states within the movie, she isn’t homeless, she’s house-less, and there is a big difference. And I liked the scenes where it breaks down how this community functions, as there is a support system in place for all these people as they communicate with each other even when they are miles apart. Zhao does an excellent job of just letting the moments play out casually on screen; like we have just ease dropped into the lives of these characters. I especially like how so much detail is put into the living spaces of these make-shift mobile homes, as they reveal so much of the personalities of these people. Where I feel the movie falls short is that while the subject of the movie is fascinating, it’s also very surface level. There is no greater purpose to the story; no theme that drives the narrative. One missed opportunity that I feel the movie glossed over is the way that many of these people have been driven to this kind of lifestyle through an unfair economic structure. There’s just the slightest hint of it in the way that job opportunities left to people like Fern, who has been displaced by the failure of outdated industries of the past, are now limited to places that devalue the individuality of the worker like an Amazon fulfillment center where Fern works over the holidays. It’s a theme of displaced people trying to live outside of a society that has left us behind that I feel could have been explored better in the movie, and sadly is uncommented upon for the rest of the film.
What does hold the movie together though is Frances McDormand’s performance. It is remarkable how well she does disappear into a role movie after movie, and Nomadland is no exception. This is also one of her more subtle performances too, especially compared to her more showy performances that have won her two Academy Awards already; for Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). She manages to make Fern a believable everywoman who like all those around her is just trying to live day by day with no greater purpose other than to maintain her independence. In the hands of a different filmmaker and a different actress, Fern may have been portrayed with a lot less subtlety, to the point where she may have been injected with some kind of mental problems that would have been exploitative for Oscar bait. Instead, Fern is portrayed as a normal, every day person who has just chosen this way of life as her ideal situation, and that there is no shame in that. There is an excellent scene where Fern defends her lifestyle to her more grounded, home-owning family who are concerned about her well being, and the movie expertly avoids turning it into an explosive moment that could have made the movie feel false and sermonizing. Instead, it is a natural back and forth disagreement that defines who Fern is, but also doesn’t portray her family as ignorant either. It’s honest and that is refreshing to see in a movie like this. One other incredible aspect of the movie is that Frances is for the most part acting opposite people who are not trained actors, and are in fact real life nomads themselves. Veteran actor David Strathairn is the obvious exception, and he is quite good too, but all of the non-actors do come across as genuine in front of the camera, and it really shows the incredible skill Chloe Zhao has in bringing out that naturalistic feel in her characters, no matter what level of acting experience they have. Even with the movie’s lack of larger themes, it does pull you in with the genuineness of the lives it’s bringing to you through the lens of the camera.
And speaking of the camera itself, another area where the movie really soars is the fantastic cinematography on display. Shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also worked with Zhao on her previous film The Rider (2017), does a magnificent job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west. For a movie that’s all about untethering oneself in order to see the country one road at a time, it does a masterful job of putting you on that road with these modern day nomads. From the in the middle of nowhere campgrounds to the intimacy of small town life, it’s a wonderful kaleidoscope of the rarely seen parts of America; the areas that can still be called a frontier. And quite expertly, Zhao also refrains from any sort of social commentary here, which Hollywood often will do with what is known as flyover country. Zhao’s eye is directed to showing the little lives of these people living in this larger than life world. There are some incredible shot of mountain ranges and coastlines throughout the movie, as well as a very character driven encounter in the Badlands National Park of South Dakota. One of the most beautiful shots however comes close to the end, when Fern does return to the home that she left behind. There you see this vast desert valley stretch out to the mountains in the distance, and the mountain peaks are shrouded by the cloud cover of an overcast sky. It contrasts so perfectly with the emptiness of her old home, as we see the floor, wall, and ceiling of nature itself welcoming her into her new home. If there was ever a movie this year that demands a big screen presentation, it is this one. Thankfully, I got to watch this in a Drive-In, which is appropriate in itself as it’s a theater experience out in the open skies and in the moonlight. And more importantly, it was on a big screen that really sold the majesty of the big wide open spaces that were so important to the character of Fern at the center of the film.
So, even with my misgivings about the tone and narrative of the story, I can understand why so many people are singing the praises of Nomadland. It is an expertly crafted and beautifully acted movie that will no doubt transport many people that fall under it’s spell. It just didn’t grab me as hard as I would’ve liked. Perhaps if I didn’t go into this movie with the knowledge of it’s frontrunner status of this awards season, I may have been less judgmental of it’s shortcomings. As of now, I expect it to a least do pretty well at this year’s Oscars, if not outright win the entire thing, but it probably won’t be my own personal pick. At the same time, if it does win, I won’t be too upset either. I felt the same way about last year’s winner Parasite; not what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to see it win (no Green Book inspired outrage here). Of course I’m saying this even before the nominations have even been announced, so it’s still up in the air. At the end of the day, I’d say that Nomadland is a fine cinematic experience worth checking out. It’s a fascinating look into a world that I wasn’t aware of before, and it is constructed with love by a filmmaker who is really starting to emerge as an impressive new voice in Hollywood. Remarkably her very next film will be the mega-budget blockbuster The Eternals (2021) for Marvel Studios, a wild departure from what she has made in the past. Hopefully, she doesn’t compromise her unique voice too much to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and hopefully she actually molds the Marvel formula more to her tastes, thereby adding a whole different kind of vision into that world. If she ends up becoming the second ever female director to take home an Academy Award for her work, it will definitely add some clout to her name in Hollywood, and could allow her to make even more ambitious projects down the line. With Oscar and Marvel on her resume, we may be seeing the emergence of one the true leaders of Hollywood for the next generation, and that’s something that’s been long overdue for a woman director. Nomadland is a casual, visually stunning and charmingly performed film that while not groundbreaking is nevertheless an expertly crafted passion project for a filmmaker that is likely going to be going on to some very big things in the future.