Drive a mile in a nomad’s shoes

Nomadland

(U.S., 2020)
Director: Chloé Zhao

Review by Niamh O’Kelly

In the film Nomadland, this year’s winner for best picture and director at the Oscars, director Chloé Zhao allows the viewer a unique and inquisitive look into the world of nomadic people. The story follows Fern (Frances McDormand, who won best actress for this role) as she embarks on a new life in the American west. After the main industry in her small town shuts down, Fern is left jobless, “houseless” and in need of work to get by. Following the advice of a nomad friend, Fern packs up her homey van and hits the road. The viewer is given an intimate look at the life of a nomad while watching Fern make friends and find work on farms and at campgrounds and restaurants across Arizona, South Dakota and California.

Getting to know Fern, we feel a little like a fly-on-the-wall voyeur and, in some aspects, like a nomad ourselves, ones with an exceptionally intimate view of Fern’s experience. The viewer never sees more than Fern does. The sweeping views of her changing landscapes are vast and breathtaking, but we see it from the same vantage point as she does; there are no wide aerial shots or tracking shots following her travels along the road. This technique allows the audience to better appreciate the unfiltered access we have into our protagonist’s roaming life.

Like Zhao’s previous work, Nomadland features real-life members of the nomadic community, lending an acutely authentic feel to the story, evocative of the Canadian cinema verité style. Hearing the characters share their stories and experiences provides us with a detailed look at the slice of life they offer. The viewer feels like a fellow community member; we’re right there with Fern in the circle of friends, privy to their personal moments, having our own first experience of this life.

While beautiful in every aspect – from the authentic and vulnerable performances to the golden, magic-hour lighting that permeates the film – Nomadland does impart a slight feeling of loneliness. Perhaps that’s the difference of perception between an outsider looking in on the rough-edged nomadic life and a seasoned member of it. Perhaps you need to embrace the lifestyle yourself to appreciate the reflective solitude in between reunions with friends and not see it as a time of isolated seclusion. I’d be willing to journey alongside Fern all over again in the hope of finding out.

Running time: 108 minutes
Streaming on Disney+

Niamh O’Kelly is an Ottawa local, long-time Glebe dweller and longer-time film and TV afficionado.

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