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Movie Review: ‘Nomadland;’ A Gorgeous Exploration of Modern America

By Ben Furgang | February 28, 2021

Courtesy of: @nomadlandfilm on Instagram

“Nomadland” is at once a celebration of everything America is, and a takedown of everything it’s not. The film, released on Feb. 19 and directed by Chloe Zhao, is remarkably open-ended, a naturalistic wonder that can be viewed in many different ways. This is its greatest strength, as viewers will mostly get back from the film what they put into it.

The film, based loosely on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name, follows Fern, played by Frances McDormand in one of her strongest roles to date. After the 2008 recession, Fern becomes a part of a very real growing trend of modern-day nomads, in a constant state of motion travelling across the United States and living out of her van after losing everything in the recession. She’s resilient, headstrong, and full of life even when facing the direst of circumstances.

McDormand is one of only two professional actors in the film, as the rest of the cast is filled entirely by non-actors and, in many cases, real nomads. This lends the film a very natural, almost documentary-like quality.

The cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous, with countless sweeping wide shots of what feel like they must be among the most beautiful vistas in the country. The film is always at its best in these quiet moments, where there is little dialogue, not much going on, and the audience is just allowed to soak in the beauty of the natural world.

And the natural world is what the film is all about. While “Nomadland” is without a doubt a massive indictment of the way our economy functions, it never tells the audience what to think, or how to feel. In fact, the politics of the film are unique in the sense that it almost refuses to get too involved. It is in no way an opinionated film, and this is apparent from the first ten minutes, where we see Fern working long hours in an Amazon warehouse. It never criticizes nor approves of the company; it solely shows what it’s like to work there.

For a film so entrenched in the ways our society has failed some of us, it’s surprising that “Nomadland” remains so neutral. It’s just a film about people doing their best to get by in a world that they can in no way control.

In living mostly outside of the system, the nomads are able to truly appreciate the natural beauty of America. It’s a more authentic form of living that is simultaneously more difficult. A lesser film could easily fall into the trap of glorifying this lifestyle, and in turn misrepresenting what it is like to be poor, but “Nomadland” never does this. It expertly treads the line between highlighting the beauty of this way of life and underlining the pain of it, ultimately resulting in a film that is less about capitalism and class, and more about the human experience.

“Nomadland” is already proving itself to be a frontrunner in this year’s awards season. After winning the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival this past fall, the film also scored a nomination for best picture at the Golden Globes. It seems almost certain that it will wind up with multiple nods at the Academy Awards as well when the nominees are announced on March 15.

“Nomadland” is streaming now on Hulu. It’s also playing locally in Albany at the Madison Theater.


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