Nomadland

Nomadland

Directed by Chloé Zhao; Winner of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (Frances McDormand)

As the Oscar frontrunner and eventual winner in three categories, Zhao’s Nomadland presents the itinerant life of Fern (Frances McDormand) over the course of a year as she traverses the American West in the wake of her husband’s death while living in a customized van. From its first scenes, the film threatens to shift into polemic, nearly falling off that precipice in a long sequence that features Fern as a seasonal worker at an Amazon warehouse. However, Zhao remains committed to capturing character portraiture over editorial comment. The film’s purpose is not a call to action, but an anthropological examination of a subculture channelled through one woman’s grief. Much of Nomadland’s success hinges on Zhao’s melding of documentary and fiction, casting the central players of Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book as themselves within Fern’s fictional narrative—a technique retained from her remarkable 2018 film The Rider. The result is a deliberately paced road movie turned western that refuses to pity Fern on her journey or portray her as a simple victim of economic circumstance while highlighting the consequences of traditional industries contending with international economic shifts.In spite of such compelling ideas, Nomadland also exhibits a lack of awareness of its own blindspots. Zhao may be making history on the awards circuit as a feted female director of Chinese descent, but there’s something more than off-putting about the daughter of a multimillionaire and graduate of NYU garnering profiles in Elle for her meticulous work as a chronicler of America’s forgotten folks. James Agee spent the majority of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his Depression-Era portrait of Southern sharecroppers in collaboration with photographer Walker Evans, wrestling with the shadow his Harvard education and financing from Fortune Magazine cast over the project. Zhao evades such introspection in Nomadland, a glaring, if not entirely unexpected, omission in a film about a class of people that only captures Hollywood’s attention during its quest for gold statues.