Chloe Zhao is a director whose profile is going to go meteoric with her work on Marvel’s Eternals already well underway but based on her work here, that high space fantasy may be more grounded than we’d might expect with the at-times fascinating Nomadland offering us a balanced, nuanced glimpse at the life of an ordinary American living life on her terms for better or worse.
A film portraying a woman living on the road and paycheque to paycheque may on the surface look like the kind of anti-capitalism screed which looks to shout at you for liking things but instead its more balanced than that. Frances McDormand’s Fern is happy to work at Amazon and insists that she “wants” to work and seems happy enough doing so but she’ll also listen to a seminar about how the want to have stuff isn’t good for you, the film making no real judgements either way, not because its unsuccessful but instead because that’s not its purpose.
With a feel which in the first half specifically feels more like a documentary than a fictional work, the film is instead interested in people, the characters we meet on the road of life and who for the most part are good people despite initial appearances, all of whom actually being real world nomads expertly injected into the narrative. McDormand fully embodies Fern’s nomadic life and has entertaining conversations with those she has transient meetings with before the story firms up more in the second half as David Strathairn’s Dave makes more of an impression.
The film’s spell does become a little undone in this section however as Fern’s central dilemma, whether to continue living the way she is to honour her husband or to try and embrace something else is of interest but doesn’t feel as alive as the earlier sections did, the less nomadic the film gets, the lesser its impact is despite McDormand and Strathairn having some pretty great chemistry and an aching melancholia through this section being very vividly handled by Zhao.
In a year so disrupted by world events, it’s immensely pleasing to still be given the treat of Frances McDormand doing her usual Awards standard work and with a release which SHOULD be happening in time for this year’s extended Oscar season, expect to see Nomadland being in the conversation for a good many months to come. It is a film which maybe doesn’t quite stick the landing in the way you want it to but a great deal of it will stay with you down the road.