In many ways the pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. In any other fall movie awards season, it most likely would have been ignored beyond the few critics who branch outside of the Hollywood mainstream.

But in a year where most of the supposedly good movies are still a ways away, Zhao and the film’s lead star and producer Frances McDormand have a good chance of Oscar glory.

Though one could easily label her a headliner because of her two Oscar wins, McDormand is at heart a successful character actress who chooses to ignore the glam and sparkle of Hollywood for meatier and more interesting roles. Whether it’s husband Joel Coen’s Fargo (1996), Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) or Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), you can expect her to stand out on her own.

The thespian is at her prime once again as the center of Nomadland playing a fictional widowed nomad named Fern. When the Nevada local loses both her job and husband in 2011 amidst the Great Recession, she chooses to live out of a van roaming middle America and taking odd jobs. While on the road, Fern discovers many other people between middle age and elderly also living in vans, just like herself.

Nomadland is one of those indie movies that effectively features two well-known actors—McDormand and David Straitharn—while the rest of the cast are complete newcomers (in this case real-life nomads). McDormand and Straitharn are experienced and talented enough to not seem out of place in the camping scenes with the locals, with the former also carrying the nature sequences all on her own.

Zhao does double duty as both the film’s director and editor, building on the gorgeous, natural cinematography by her partner Joshua James Richards, and a simple, pretty music score by Ludovico Einaudi. The Chinese filmmaker’s previous feature, The Rider (2017), brought attention to contemporary cowboys, and made a splash on the festival circuit and with critics. She impresses again with another group of Americans who aren’t talked about much anymore.

Supposedly it was McDormand herself who reached out to Zhao to direct the new indie film after reading Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century. This makes sense when you watch the director’s work and can feel her genuine understanding and appreciation for the American countryside.

 One thing I did find a little amusing is that at the beginning of the movie, Fern works part time for Amazon. Nomadland is produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures and distributed through Hulu for streaming, even though the shopping company isn’t portrayed particularly negatively. Whatever the case, Nomadland is one for film fans who appreciate intuitive acting and atmospheric direction.

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