#TIFF20 Review: “Nomadland” is a Beautiful Film that Heralds Americans’ Thirst for Living on Your Own Terms

I love it when a film lives up to its hype — and Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” definitely does just that. But don’t get it twisted, its not overly involved or dramatic or filled with any action, but what it is filled with is such an authentic realism depicting the plight of thousands of Americans who are living on the cusp and wanting to do so on their own terms. It’s not your typical roadtrip movie in which the main character(s) is trying to escape — its the exact opposite here — it’s about finding your place and your community…something we’re all searching for.

“Nomadland” revolves around Fern (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who after the financial collapse of 2008 decides to embark on a life outside of conventional society. She takes seasonal and odd jobs and starts living in her van as she heads out to an encampment out West. Along the way she meets a few interesting characters who turn into mentors and friends. Everyone has a backstory and though at first glance it may seem like this just might be a story of the tragic plight of thousands in the America, it is so much more than that. This film shows these individuals as self-sufficient and proud people who see the beauty and freedom in the open road, but also the sense of community — it is a way of life and living it to the fullest. While the film doesn’t romanticize these people or the nomadic lifestyle, it does give a glimpse into their lives with a tender realism (even going so far as using real life nomads in the film).

The film has an understated, quiet dignity to it that makes for a touching and endearing watch. It’s a look back at what got us to the point that we’re at now. In a time of quarantine and uncertainty, the wide-open spaces and free lifestyle is much more appealing. It’s a serious look at modern day life on the road, but done so not with a sense of disdain but with sincere curiosity humanity. It’s an intimate character study on a growing segment of the American population. This is Zhao’s third feature, but you can really see the fascination and love for the American Heartland and lifestyles of the open West. She brings to these stories a real delicate sincerity, adoration and inquisitiveness.

“Nomadland” draws you in from the beginning — not through wild shots or crazy drama, but through your connection to the people and the land. The cinematography and lighting of the film is beautiful and captivating. The performances, though subtle and understated, command your attention and serve the story well. You’d be hard press to find a Frances McDormand performance that wasn’t top notch — she really carries this film with such ease. And although his part is brief comparatively, David Strathairn is wonderful as well. It feels good to see connection and sense of “family” between the two and the rest of the nomads as they contend with being misunderstood and living life on their own terms. In the end, this film is about finding “home” and yourself — for home is where the heart is, wherever that may be or where it may take you.