In more usual circumstances, we’d have viewed all the Oscar contenders well before the night of the announcement. In these chastened times, our earliest opportunity to watch 2021’s ‘Best Film’ winner is to catch it on Disney+, the night after its release onto the mighty mouse’s streaming service. As ever we find ourselves longing for a bigger screen, but Nomadland is the kind of film that transcends such considerations. It’s an absolute joy, and in my opinion, fully worthy of its win.
It’s winter 2011 and Fern (Frances McDormand) loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down, due to the recession. Sixty-one years of age and recently widowed, Fern can’t afford to pay rent on a property, so she seizes upon the only option left to her. She packs up a few belongings into her little van and hits the road, looking for whatever temporary work she can get hold of along the way. She first finds a job at an Amazon fulfilment centre through the Christmas break, packing gifts for delivery, where she makes friends with fellow-worker, Linda (Linda May).
Linda tells her about a desert rendezvous in Arizona, run by a man called Bob Wells (like most of the supporting actors in this film, Bob plays himself). Longing for sunnier climes, Fern makes her way South when the Amazon work dries up and learns that are many others in her situation – elderly people who, through no fault of their own, have been cast adrift and abandoned by society. Now they are obliged to work like University students on a break, taking whatever menial work they can find – packing gifts, farming sugar beet, waiting-on in burger bars and cafes – and doing it without complaint.
Fern drifts calmly through the process, taking it all in her stride – and as she travels, the beauties of the ever-changing American landscape are revealed in a painterly style that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick movie. Fern is a beguiling character, plucky, indomitable and self-contained. When somebody says that they’ve heard she is homeless, she replies with evident pride. ‘Oh no, I’m not homeless. Just houseless.’
Writer/director Chloé Zhao’s extraordinary film draws a line that can be traced back to the pioneers of the Old West – or perhaps, more accurately, to the migrant workers of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I have despaired of America recently, but this film serves to remind me that so many of its inhabitants have qualities to be admired – it’s just the political system that governs them that should be condemned for treating them so shoddily. And yet, unusually, this is also a film that has no real villains; indeed, pretty much everyone Fern encounters treats her respectfully, offering her help, support and comradeship.
For a time she falls in with fellow wanderer, Dave (David Strathairn), and the two of them seem to be a good fit – but when he’s offered a way out of his situation, he’d be a fool not to take it. Wouldn’t he?
Calm, thoughtful and inspiring, Nomadland is a timely reminder that we need to value the right things in life. Like the pieces of crockery Fern carries with her, gifted to her by her late father, they are just things. Once broken, they become meaningless. Perhaps they always were. Zhao’s ultimate message seems to be that the qualities we carry within us through life are more important than the baggage we acquire along the way.
And if I’m in danger of sounding like a talking fridge magnet here, please don’t be put off.
This really is a very special film.