Nomadland review: caught between a drama and a documentary

After a year of cinema closures, repeated release delays and incessant streaming premieres, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland emerged the victor of the 2021 Academy Awards

Nile Sharma
17th May 2021
Image: IMDb
Nomadland interweaves fact and fiction to illustrate the lives of “nomads”, a subculture of largely aged workers including recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) who traverse the US in search of employment in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

Based upon Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction work Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, Zhao’s film utilises Fern as a vehicle for the audience to explore the authentic and often tragic world of nomads, with several of the novel’s subjects featuring as themselves.

With striking, vibrantly hued cinematography and commanding direction, the film’s most potent strength lies with its compassionate visual storytelling that succeeds in providing a detailed and tangible depiction of the hardships of the nomad lifestyle, without succumbing to romanticizing poverty. McDormand is as compelling a screen presence as ever and imbues the role with both strength and vulnerability that makes her entirely believable in a way few other actors could.

Image: IMDb

The film is inherently limited, however, by its decision to mix narrative with non-fiction and exists in an uneasy middle-ground between documentary and feature film, consequently failing to wholly achieve the depth of the former and the thematic heft of the latter. Fern is simply a far less interesting subject than the actual cast of nomads who serve as background and, despite McDormand’s committed performance, is a constant reminder of artificiality.

[T]he depiction of Amazon warehouses as a source of stable and enjoyable seasonal employment is perplexing

Furthermore, it is telling that the most emotionally impactful moments are drawn from these non-fiction characters, making it unavoidable to consider whether a full-length documentary would have made for a richer, albeit less seen, viewing experience. Additionally, despite Zhao having a clear interest and empathy for the workers of the film, the depiction of Amazon warehouses as a source of stable and enjoyable seasonal employment is perplexing given recurrent reports of international employee mistreatment and horrific working conditions, providing a degree of simplistic Hollywood short-sightedness.

While Nomadland has been universally received with rapturous acclaim since its release, as with all Best Picture winners the true legacy and cultural impact of the film will become apparent in forthcoming years. Despite being a sympathetic, handsomely mounted depiction of an overlooked community, the film’s hints of excellence are obscured by its experimental framing that simplifies important contemporary issues and underwrites its most compelling elements.

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