Few casual moviegoers will find Chloé Zhao’s latest directorial effort to be their absolute favorite film of the year, but even fewer can reasonably argue that it may be among the very best.

A haunting yet powerful portrait of a hidden life across the heartland, Nomadland finds some of the best of America wandering across the country in search of boundless freedom and of themselves.

Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a seasonal worker traveling the country in an inauspicious white van following the death of her husband and collapse of the town they lived in after the US Gypsum plant closed down. Along the course of her travels, she meets a variety of interesting characters living as van-dwellers.

Rather than forcing plot down the throats of its audience, Nomadland meanders slowly through its 105-minute running time with a subtle grace that allows for deep reflection. Zhao’s film is an unassuming portrait of Americana through the lens of a woman unable to cope with massive changes in her life.

Nomadland is a quiet road movie filled with introspection, genuine performances from raw untrained talent and endlessly striking cinematography that maximizes natural light.

At its core is McDormand, who anchors the audience in the world of nomadic living with a somber, intentionally soft performance as Fern. Much of the film follows Fern experiencing life on the open roads for the first time and McDormand draws viewers in with a genuine warmth that masks deep inner pain. 

What McDormand makes seem so effortless is incredibly difficult to pull off, having Fern be present in the moments presented to her by life’s unpredictability that gives Nomadland a sense of wonderous freedom.

Nomadland is less a narrative fiction and more an organic work of art thanks in large part to Zhao’s decision to cast nonprofessional actors – real life nomads playing themselves who deliver a large majority of the film’s emotional stakes and authenticity.

Characters like the reclusive Swankie or energetic Linda May provide Nomadland with a sense of color, bursting any superficial sheen that studio features might have. At times, Zhao’s film becomes almost a documentary with McDormand playing tour guide to an unknown world of America’s heartland. Her film honors the nomadic culture with quiet reverence and respect, allowing these wandering seniors to express themselves in pure honesty that radiates off the screen.

Aside from McDormand, the one recognizable face is veteran character actor David Strathairn, who plays Dave with a light touch, matching McDormand’s warmth and becoming a small part of the larger picture of the film with a simple presence.

Zhao takes audiences through Fern’s journey in an endless array of loosely connected vignettes meant to showcase her state of being. Scenes feel immensely organic as if they are occurring in real-time without prompting and Nomadland often has an improvisational quality to its storytelling that likely helped draw the first-time actors out of their shells.

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards masterfully utilizes an extended wide angle lens to frame the long, empty vastness of the film’s outdoor landscapes and mirrors that by pulling his camera in close to characters, tightening the frame to the point where there’s nowhere else to look but people telling stories.

Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Nomadland is poised to be a frontrunner at this year’s Academy Awards with a Best Picture nomination a foregone conclusion. Zhao, who won Best Director at Sunday’s Golden Globes, is a certainty for an Oscar nomination as is previous winner McDormand, who gives the most subdued, yet enchanting performance of her career.

A cinematography nod is likely, but larger nominations in categories like adapted screenplay, score and supporting actor for Strathairn could become a precursor for a major awards sweep.

A fictional film that blends verité documentary storytelling with a loose narrative structure, Nomadland is the epitome of independent cinema at its finest and an absolute must see film streaming on Hulu for easy access by casual audiences.

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